Tag Archives: Gabriel

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She did not stomp, and not because it wasn’t ladylike; Natchua had already resigned herself to the knowledge that she was going to disappoint anyone who expected her to behave like a proper Imperial duchess. No, Natchua restrained the impulse to slam her feet down with every step simply because she was somewhat overly conscious of social perception due to her embarrassing history of over-the-top melodrama at Last Rock and this Duchess business had only brought that closer to the surface. Even so, she really wanted to project anger with every fiber of her being as she bore down on the two elves who had intruded upon her domain.

Talvrin and Ashaele paused in the middle of the drive, watching her come; nobody else seemed inclined to approach them, perhaps unsurprisingly. Natchua made a sharp gesture with her right hand as soon as she drew close enough, wreathing the three in a subtle ring of shifting shadows and menacing whispers that hovered just at the edge of elven hearing. Even for non-elves, it obscured and mixed the sounds of their voices enough to ensure a measure of privacy.

“Shaeine has been a much better friend to me than I deserve,” she stated by way of greeting, “and I understand that you are here at the personal invitation of Ravana Madouri. That is why neither of you are being bodily hurled over the property’s walls right now. That fact is still subject to change if I am not extremely satisfied with your explanation of your bloody effrontery in showing your faces here.”

She folded her arms and waited imperiously to be answered. To her annoyance, neither woman appeared intimidated, but then Natchua hadn’t really expected it of them.

Magister Talvrin, at least, had the grace to bow to her. “Good evening and felicitations, Duchess Leduc. I am only too glad to offer an explanation, as it was my major concern in presuming to come here this evening.” She hesitated a split second before continuing. “Please understand that as a Magister of Qestraceel I am unable to express an apology, or anything else which might acknowledge fault on behalf of my government, in this difficult moment when tense negotiations with the Empire are ongoing.”

“You need to brush up on your Circles if you think coming here and dancing on my patience is a smart move, mage.”

The Magister continued, unperturbed but still solemn. “With that awkward reality acknowledged, speaking as a citizen of the Confederacy, I am deeply embarrassed that you were inconvenienced by our internal issues, and very relieved that you emerged unharmed. And I can assure you that there will be no repeat of that shameful event.”

“In fact, Natchua,” Ashaele added, “it may please you to learn that House Dalmiss has placed itself in disfavor with every level of our government from the Queen to the Confederacy itself, and Matriarch Ezrakhai has spared no effort in directing the resulting pressure onto Nassra’s head.”

Natchua stared at her, but after a moment allowed her mouth to quirk lopsidedly in a fragment of a smile. “Very well, you’re right. That’s pretty…gratifying. Was that all you came here to say?”

Ashaele glanced at Talvrin, who immediately bowed to each of them. “Please excuse me, Duchess, Matriarch.” She discreetly retreated outside the radius of Natchua’s sonic disruption, making her way toward Ravana.

Returning her gaze to Natchua, Ashaele stated in a much flatter tone, “Your mother is one of the most unbearable assholes I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

Natchua went rigid. She happened to wholeheartedly agree, but between two Narisians there was virtually no more offensive statement that could be made. It was the kind of insult only a Matriarch could voice without expecting to be immediately punched in response; only a Matriarch had sufficient weight of social position that anyone would even defend her after such an offense.

And, Natchua realized after a shocked second, she was now equivalent in rank. Her right hand balled into a fist, and purple flames flickered across her fingers. Walled off in their cocoon of sound, with her attention fully on Ashaele, she didn’t hear the murmurs that rose, or even notice people rapidly backing away from the two drow.

“And I need you to understand that,” Ashaele said, her voice softer, eyes intent. “Your experience growing up was not normal. Narisian ways are ruthless and harsh, yes, but it is precisely because of this truth that our society can only function when we value each other. No one can lead her family the way a Narisian must, unless that family is held together by sincere bonds of love. In addition to her various defects of personality, Nassra has always failed to understand that simple and crucial fact. Goddess’s mercy, Natchua, a spider box is a weapon of last resort to punish those who knowingly and deliberately inflict shame upon their Houses. One should never be used to discipline children. That is nothing less than insanity! I will never condemn you for your behavior at Last Rock or elsewhere since you left us, and I have earned the ire of both Nassra and Ezrakhai by refusing to allow any pursuit of you through diplomatic channels. You were abused more than raised. Your anger and loathing is fully justified, and it is a tremendous credit to you that you’ve turned out as well as you have, after being raised by a selfish, thoughtless monster of a woman who saw you as nothing but a thing to be used. A daughter’s devotion is demanded in our culture, yes, but it must be earned through love and devotion in kind. I am…glad to see that you escaped, and are flourishing.”

She paused, still watching Natchua closely. Natchua, for her part, did not relax her fist just yet, but allowed the fire to flicker out, staring at Ashaele through narrowed eyes.

“Unlike my Qestrali colleague, I will apologize to you,” the Matriarch said after a moment. “The truth is that I am one of very few who had an inkling what was happening in your household and might have had the influence to do something about it. Even within another House, a Matriarch’s word is not nothing, and Ezrakhai does listen to me. But the truth is, I considered the costs and benefits and did nothing, for the sake of what I deemed the greater good. If you choose to despise me, Natchua, you’ve the right. I am sorry for failing you. It changes nothing, but I am. And if I can aid you now without compromising my responsibilities to Tar’naris and the Confederacy, I will be glad to do so. You’re owed it.”

“You never cared enough to say all this before now,” Natchua said, pleased to find her voice even. “Not a word to me, until the very moment I gained a noble rank. Do you imagine that you’re subtle, Ashaele? Even by my standards, you really aren’t. Spit out what you want before my patience finishes evaporating.”

It was heady, addressing a Matriarch by her first name, right to her face. Even a week ago, Natchua might have done so anyway, just to be aggressive. Somehow, the fact that Ashaele didn’t even have the right to complain about the presumption made it even sweeter.

To her credit, Ashaele offered no denial, nodding once in acknowledgment. “That is true, and all part of the pattern of my life. I must turn a blind eye to all manner of suffering in order to serve a higher purpose; such it is, to be Narisian. I don’t ask anything of you but patience and tolerance, Natchua. You’re now in a position to have some influence on the affairs of nations, however minor. All I ask is that you understand what was done to you was an inexcusable aberration. Please don’t punish an entire civilization for the actions of individuals.”

“Aberration,” Natchua whispered. “Really, now. You think my sad story is all that unusual?”

“I am well aware—”

“I’m sure you’d like to think that, Ashaele, but if you truly understand what life in Tar’naris is like for anyone who’s not born to power and privilege, you’re as despicable as my mother for presiding over that depravity and doing nothing about it. That festering shithole’s entire culture is based around the fact that whatever horrible thing it does must be okay, because after all, the Scyllithenes are always worse! It’s the most soulless possible approach to governing a society imaginable. Have you considered that, just maybe, your civilization deserves anything that might be coming to it, if not more?”

Ashaele tilted her head incrementally. “Do give me a minimum of credit. I am keenly aware of the flaws and failures of our society. What, exactly, is your plan to fix them?”

Natchua barked an incredulous laugh. “Is that my responsibility, somehow?”

“No, it is mine. And unlike you, I have not only given great thought to how our people must change, but worked steadily to achieve that end. It is obvious to anyone with eyes that Tar’naris cannot continue as it has. Irrespective of the weight of our moral failings, we have entered a world in which the unique Narisian blend of heavy-handedness and myopia will lead only to doom. But what do you imagine would happen if I tried to explain all this to the Matriarchs? Or even better, force them to comply? Has it been your experience that people politely listen and then change their ways when you calmly and rationally lecture them on the benefits of giving up their privileged positions?”

Natchua snorted. “All right, fair enough. But to rehash an earlier part of this conversation, I am done with Tar’naris and all its perfidy. This sounds like a you problem.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “hence my pleading with you not to make it worse. I will never insult you by downplaying your experiences, Duchess Leduc; I have offered my apologies for them, and my support with whatever cause of yours I can aid that does not contradict my loyalties. Only you can decide whether this is adequate. It is really all I can do.”

Natchua studied her in silence for a moment; Ashaele met her gaze firmly. There was nothing to be gained by trying to read a Narisian diplomat’s expression.

She snuffed out the sonic effect surrounding them, allowing the party music and soft conversation to rush back over their senses. Ashaele glanced to the side, noting the action, but making no further acknowledgment. Natchua did not miss the speculative and eager gazes fixed on them by a number of minor Tiraan nobility eager for any scrap of influence they could scavenge.

And so, she decided to throw them a bone.

“You needn’t worry that my experiences in Tar’naris will have any effect on elven-Imperial relations, Matriarch Ashaele.” Natchua did not raise her voice, but enough of the eavesdroppers had edged close enough that it wouldn’t matter. “House Leduc stands firmly behind House Tirasian, as I have made clear. Foreign policy is none of my business in any case, and I don’t aspire to influence it even indirectly. As for my own opinions, I am satisfied that Emperor Sharidan’s leadership is exactly what Tiraas needs. It should be obvious to you, to me, and to anyone who has paid attention to recent history that the Silver Throne has led us well these last years since the Narisian Treaty.”

Ashaele nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on over her.

“With that said, House Leduc takes its responsibility to this province seriously. That may not have been true for some time, but under my leadership, things will change. I have already made it clear to House Awarrion what will happen to pushy drow who come to Veilgrad looking to profit at the expense of my people. After my encounter with the Highguard, I will extend that warning to all the Confederacy: I protect these lands, and any pointy ears coming here had better be attached to excellent manners, if they know what’s good for them.”

If anything, the onlookers had drifted closer while she spoke, and at that, cheers and applause broke out from the surrounding Imperials. Natchua didn’t even glance aside at them, keeping her focus on Ashaele, who was studying her in turn, utterly impassive. Hardly any of these people were even local to Veilgrad, but apparently one couldn’t go wrong by appealing to patriotism. At least with this crowd.

After a pause in which they locked gazes, Natchua finally looked past Ashaele’s shoulder to an unfolding scene which she’d been aware of since dropping the sound screen, but had not brought to the forefront of her awareness. She lowered her voice before adding a final thought, since it was one none of the onlookers needed to concern themselves with.

“Except him, of course. Raolo’s cool.”


“Raolo?” Toby didn’t trouble to disguise the surprise and delight on his face when he spied the elf making a beeline toward him from the gates, and not just because he had little regard for the politics and appearances that were so important to so many at this party.

For his part, Raolo was already smiling as he approached, but his expression only brightened further in response to Toby’s. Which just made him happier in turn, and so on in a mutual feedback loop until both were outright beaming by the time they closed the distance enough to clasp hands. It was just as well Ruda had stayed in Madouris; this was exactly the kind of encounter that made her loudly complain that too much sugar disagreed with her whiskey.

Grinning like a fool and not caring, Toby squeezed Raolo’s slender fingers in his own, and then impetuously pulled him forward into a hug which set the elf laughing even as he reciprocated.

“So you are glad to see me!” Raolo chuckled. “Guess I don’t have to worry about that after all.”

“Oh come on, why would you ever need to worry about that?” Toby pulled back enough to grin at him again. “This is exactly the blessing I needed. No offense to our hostesses, but maybe now I can finally enjoy this party.”

“Oh, you and parties.” Raolo playfully rubbed at his hair, which fortunately was too thick and wiry for him to easily muss. “Are you finally getting tired of benignly observing from the sides?”

“Oh, that’s fine and dandy when it’s at Last Rock with friends, or at least acquaintances. A bunch of miscellaneous nobility, though…” He chanced a glance to the side, and sure enough, more than a handful of well-dressed strangers were studying him with expressions he could only think of as sharklike. For just a second Toby wavered, feeling the pressure of expectations rearing up, but he immediately and deliberately pushed that aside. If he could stand up to the expectations of his own cult, what did he care what any of these people thought? “Well, at least it probably won’t turn out the way my last aristocratic social event went down.”

“Mm, has anyone checked that Trissiny’s not hanging around near the punchbowls?”

“Oh, come on!” Trissiny’s voice exclaimed from the near distance. Both of them grinned but otherwise ignored her.

“Never mind them anyway,” Toby said, reaching up to lightly shift a lock of golden hair that was obstructing his view of Raolo’s eyes. Even remembering how much the elf felt like silk under his fingers never compared to experiencing it anew. “What are you doing here, Raolo?”

“Ah, I’m glad you made it, Raolo,” Ravana said, idly sauntering by them with an unusually smug expression even for her. “I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“I think you know it was,” the elf replied sardonically. “The carriage and driver were a little excessive, Ravana. Not that I object to being driven, but that thing had eight seats and a cold box full of sparkling wine. Is that how you cruise around all the time?”

“No, but it’s how I treat my friends,” she said, smiling placidly. “Luxury is so much better appreciated by those not born to it.”

Toby heaved a sigh. “Ravana, stuff like this is why people are always demanding what you did this time. Didn’t I specifically ask you not to interrupt Raolo’s vacation? Just this morning?”

“Oh, did you.” And just like that, Raolo’s entire aspect changed. He still smiled, but suddenly the expression was brittle and there was something sharp in the set of his eyes. Without quite releasing Toby’s hands, he nonetheless pulled back.

“You know I’m glad to be able to spend time with you away from campus,” Toby said quickly. “It’s just… Ravana. You know? I think if somebody didn’t stop her she’d try to put puppet strings on all of us.”

“I do say that’s a bit much,” Ravana protested.

“Well, he’s not entirely wrong, you know,” Raolo said to her. “This was a nice thing you did, Ravana, and I thank you. People do get tired of being treated like somebody else always knows what’s better for them, though. I get enough of that at home,” he added, his eyes cutting back to Toby. That withdrawn hardness was still in them.

Toby winced. “Was it…bad? I don’t want to pry, I just… Well, I hate to come between you and what time you’ve got with your family.”

“That’s very considerate.” If anything, the elf’s expression stiffened further, and Toby found himself frowning quizzically. Even Ravana suddenly glanced sharply back and forth between them, picking up on the tension.

“Are you okay?” Toby asked in concern. “I suddenly feel like you’re… Uh, did I do something to upset you?”

For some reason, that only appeared to make things worse, though instead of growing more tense, Raolo suddenly sagged. It was a slight motion, the merest lowering of his head and slumping of his shoulders, but it made him look unmistakably defeated.

That was much worse.

Now Ravana appeared nearly as concerned as he, and Malivette, who had just wandered into their proximity, cleared her throat pointedly. Neither Toby nor Raolo looked over at her, though.

“No, Toby,” Raolo sighed, and then gave him a resigned smile that felt worse than a slap. “Everything’s fine.”

“Everything’s clearly not fine,” Toby insisted, frowning. “I can tell you’re upset.”

“About what?” Raolo shrugged. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Toby. You graciously relinquished your claim on my time so I could go home to the grove…just like I asked. And sure, my family are insufferable, but thanks to Ravana being also insufferable now I can spend the evening with you instead of them. It’s a perfect outcome!” He smiled again, trying to inject some cheer into the expression, but so obviously trying that it was painful to behold.

“Ahem,” Malivette said, not that anyone paid her any mind.

“Hey.” Gently taking Raolo’s hands again, Toby ran his thumbs across the backs of the elf’s fingers, holding his gaze. “You don’t need to do that, not with me. Whatever’s—”

“Can we please just not?” Raolo pleaded. “It’s a party. Let’s relax and have some fun. Look, there’s dancing! And I could use a drink.”

“If…that’s what you want,” Toby said dubiously.

For some reason, that made annoyance flare in Raolo’s expression again, but the elf quickly mastered it, put on another public smile, and opened his mouth to answer.

At that moment, Malivette began coughing loudly, quickly escalating to a series of hacking wheezes like a cat passing a hairball, and actually doubled over. Ravana edged warily away from her, while the surrounding nobles stared incredulously.

“Blaaaah!” The vampire straightened back up, turning a beaming smile on them as she wiped the back of her hand across her lips. “Scuze me, must’ve inhaled a clot. Say, lads, I just wanted to mention, the party only started out here on the lawn, the whole manor is open. Lots of indoor space, y’know, private rooms. Places to have a conversation discreetly.”

“Thank you very much, Duchess Dufresne,” Raolo said with a slightly wintry smile, “but that won’t be—”

“It’s Raolo, right?” She grinned broadly at him in that expression of hers that showed off her fangs a lot more than it actually suggested a good mood. “Say, just for the record, elves aren’t edible for me. I only mention that because it’s gonna become an extremely relevant reassurance if you do something to create a debacle at this extremely politically important party.” Malivette let the silence hang for two heartbeats of dramatic effect, just grinning at their shocked expressions, before continuing in a lower tone. “Go inside, boys, and have a chat. Quietly.”

“Um…maybe that would actually be best,” Toby said, turning his attention back from her to Raolo.

The elf clenched his jaw for a moment, then nodded in a single jerky little motion. “Fine.”


“Uh…” Trissiny watched Toby and Raolo disappear into the manor, frowning in consternation. “I hope they’re… Do you think we should do something?”

“Like what, Triss?” Gabriel asked. “What possible thing could anyone butting into that do that wouldn’t just make it worse? And that’s not even touching on the fact that neither of us is Mister or General Social Skills to begin with.”

“Hey, I think we’re both a lot better than we used to be,” she protested. “But still… Yeah, fair point. It’s just that I hate to think of… You know?”

“I do,” he nodded. “If there’s anybody who deserves some straightforward uncomplicated happiness, there they went. But relationships aren’t like that. You just gotta deal with stuff, and unless it’s an Izarite cleric involving somebody else in it doesn’t usually help.”

“And I think we’ve all had as much Izarite influence as we need for one night,” she muttered, glancing at the gates. At least Bishop Snowe had been as good as her word and left the grounds once her message was delivered. All things considered, that might have been simple self-preservation on her part.

“Well, anyway, it’s a party,” he said after a momentary pause. “I can think of a much better use of our time than standing here fretting.”

“I am terrified to ask,” Trissiny deadpanned.

He grinned and had the audacity to wink at her. “You remember our first week? Specifically, the first night of punishment duty, washing dishes for Oak?”

“Yes,” she said dryly. “You invited me to a town dance, and that was when I knew you were completely insane.”

“Exactly!” Gabriel stepped back, turned toward her, and held out one hand with a shallow bow. “You never did give me an answer on that, and the town social came and went. So you owe me one, Triss.”

“Are you serious?” Teetering on the verge of incredulous laughter, she glanced around at the grounds. “This is a political event, you know. Think politics. Us dancing would kick off a flurry of wild rumors.”

“Let ‘em speculate, it’s not like any of these people would know what they’re talking about. And hey, we might as well provide them some free entertainment! These parties tend to end with us terrorizing them one way or another, so we might owe it to ‘em. Just so you’re aware, the drinks are served over there on the buffet table,” he added helpfully. “It’s mostly bottled wine and hot cider at this time of year, but I did notice a lovely crystal punch—”

“I have no compunctions about hitting you since I know it doesn’t actually hurt you.”

“What’s the point of doing it then?” he rejoined. Trissiny made a face at him; he grinned more broadly and lifted the hand he was still holding out. “C’mon, they’re playing a waltz. That’s basically the easiest one.”

She studied him skeptically for a long moment, then finally permitted herself a smile of dour amusement and reached out to take his hand. In the next second, they were swirling out across the drive amid the other couples moving to the music.

In the moment after that, both of them stared at each other in shock and said in unison, without faltering in the motion, “You can dance!”

They completed one more stationary revolution before the other shoe dropped, and both paladins scowled, this time talking over one another rather than speaking in chorus.

“Wait a second, were you just trying to embarrass—”

“This was a trick, you sneaky—”

Both broke off, and then burst out laughing. And kept dancing.

“Seriously, though,” Gabriel said merrily. “You? Can waltz?”

“Hey, I grew up in a barracks up in the mountains with dozens of other girls. The only entertainment was whatever we made for ourselves! What about you?”

“Oh, Teal taught me,” he admitted. “It was after that trip to Tiraas in our first year, remember? You all went to that party at General Panissar’s house?”

“Ah, yes. That was…a mess.”

“Could’ve been worse, the way I heard it,” he said lightly, twirling her around the decorative fountain in the center of the roundabout drive. “Upon reflection what I’m most surprised about is that you’re letting me lead.”

“Because I figured you’d try to, and we’re probably creating enough of a stir without turning it into a scuffle,” she snorted. “A wise feminist conserves energy for the necessary battles by not fighting pointless ones.”

“Ever the strategist. Well, if there’s gonna be a scuffle, we should probably save it for later in the evening.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, everybody’s out here watching right now. As the night progresses and the drink is drunk, people will start pairing off and disappearing into those private rooms Malivette helpfully reminded us she has.”

Trissiny wrinkled her nose. “How would you know? Do you attend a lot of aristocrat parties?”

“I know what people are like,” he chuckled, “and I listen to aristocrats. We’ve got a good handful on the campus, you know, and several of them love talking about their fancy social events.”

“I see. Well.” She finally looked away from his face, glancing sidelong across the crowd they were still dancing through. “If we’re going to head back to Tiraas tonight and deal with Justinian, I’m afraid you and Juniper aren’t going to have the opportunity to sneak off.”

“Wh—Juniper?” Gabriel blinked at her in astonishment. “You thought we— Triss, that hasn’t been going on since freshman year!”

She blinked right back, equally startled. “What? Really? I thought… I mean, you’re…”

“Okay, I am straining not to take offense,” he complained. “Really, is that what you think, I have nothing on my mind but chasing skirts?”

“Well, in fairness, you do also like playing with your wand…”

“It would serve you right if I tripped you.”

Trissiny grinned, then cleared her throat with a little discomfort, glancing away again. “So, uh, not to pry, but what made you two decide to…?”

“Oh, it… Well, actually, we never decided. That is, there was never a conversation about it. It just sort of…stopped happening, and that was fine. Both of us, I mean individually, we both kind of came to a place where that wasn’t what we needed or wanted anymore, so it worked out fine.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Actually, I guess it worked out ideally. Maybe closure would’ve been nice, but I don’t feel like I missed out on it. June doesn’t seem to, either. This way there was no awkwardness, and I got to keep a really good friend without making it, uh, messy.”

Slowly Trissiny nodded, staring at him with an oddly pensive expression. “Yeah… I guess there’s something to that.”

“What do you mean, to it?”

“Sometimes,” she said distantly, her eyes seeming to look at something far away, “having a conversation isn’t really…the best thing, necessary, or even useful. Not if everybody already understands up front that there’s no point.”

They had drifted to the edge of the dancing area, coming close to the end of one of the buffet tables, and that was the moment when the band brought the waltz to an end. Across the lawn, couples separated, many applauding politely. Trissiny and Gabriel slowly released each other in silence, studying one another’s eyes.

“Well,” Trissiny said abruptly, putting on a smile, “good timing. I’d better go supervise that.” She tilted her head to one side, where over by the manor’s steps, Malivette and Natchua had cornered Bishop Darling. “And I see you have fallen into my trap, as well.”

“Excuse me?” he exclaimed.

Rather than answering, Trissiny turned aside to address the woman in servant’s livery who was standing by the edge of the table with her hands neatly folded in front of her. “It’s Hesthri, right?”

The servant’s eyes widened and she focused on Trissiny, having been watching Gabriel. “I…beg your pardon, miss? You must have me mistaken for…”

“You were staring,” Trissiny said, not unkindly. “At him. And let’s face it, he’s not that good looking.”

“Those Eserites turned you into a spiteful little beast,” Gabriel complained.

“Yep,” she said with an unrepentant wink. “But seriously, Gabe, there are some conversations that actually do need to be had. I’ll catch up with you later.”

So saying, she turned and sauntered off in the direction of the Bishop and the Duchesses, leaving a tense island of quiet behind.

Gabriel shifted to study the serving woman, who was watching him closely in kind. They didn’t speak for a few long seconds, which under the circumstances was as good as a confession.

“She’s a sharp one,” Hesthri said at last, then grinned. “Not to mention pretty. So, you two…?”

“Oh, uh…no.” He shook his head, averting his eyes as his cheeks darkened slightly. “That is, there may be a tense…um, but not… Well, it’s, we’re friends, okay? We’re pretty close and I’d hate to mess up… Anyway, paladins don’t live the kind of life that…” Growling in frustration at his own inarticulate babbling, he trailed off and shook his head, scowling across the dance floor at nobody. “It’s just… It’s not a good idea.”

Hesthri studied him in silence for a few more beats, a gentle smile playing about her own lips, before finally reaching out to very lightly touch his arm.

“Tell me about her.”

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16 – 35

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The grounds of Dufresne Manor had been transformed, which was good, because they had urgently needed it. Its gravel drive had been freshly smoothed, of course, but far more strikingly was that its broad lawns, formerly choked by waist-high weeds as part of Malivette’s deliberate effort to make her property look uninviting, was now neatly trimmed at the regulation three inches above soil level. That, of course, was only the beginning; the entire property had been laid out with tables of food, an outdoor stage where entertainment would be provided, and hung with House crests and banners in the colors of Houses Dufresne, Leduc, and Madouri. Pumpkin-sized apparatuses of crystal floated above the grounds, providing both light and heating charms that kept the environs comfortable despite Veilgrad’s lethal midwinter chill. That alone had been a staggering expense, but for aristocrats, wildly grandiose displays of wealth and power were not an indulgence but a necessity for survival. No one who walked the halls of power lacked enemies, and enemies would pounce upon any perceived weakness.

Natchua wished they would go ahead and pounce so she could vaporize somebody. All this pomp and ceremony was wearing on her nerves.

Every culture had its rituals, and so there was a procedure for events such as this. Guests had begun to arrive, and had been trickling into the protected warmth of the grounds for over half an hour, with servants (Ravana’s on loan, as the hostess employed no staff save her four vampiric thralls) collecting winter coats at the gates. A string quartet played on the stage, more servants distributed food and drink, and the arriving lower nobility and other guests circulated with one another at apparent ease, but by the customs of Imperial aristocracy, the party had not officially begun.

The three Duchesses—Natchua’s adoption and Sherwin’s abdication had been an anticlimactically quiet affair which took place earlier in the day, in an office with lawyers—stood atop the steps to the Manor itself, each beneath a hanging banner bearing her House’s crest. They just stood there, the picture of poise, waiting until they judged the grounds had filled enough to start the party properly. At that point, they would descend and begin to circulate themselves; until then, the guests kept their distance—even the various Last Rock invitees, who had had to have the proprieties explained to them just like Natchua—and made an effort not even to stare at their hostesses, at least not openly. Natchua had asked whether they couldn’t do this part sitting down, and been informed that that was only appropriate for provincial rulers, and Malivette and Ravana had abstained from seats so as to make a show of their support for her by not putting her in a subordinate position.

Natchua couldn’t decide if this was better than Narisian rituals or much worse. She was still hung up on the fact that she was now an aristocrat, and in fact a rich and very powerful one. Nothing about it felt real.

“Well, well,” Malivette murmured as the three stood there like graceful statuary. “Irana Daraspian actually showed up. She must smell opportunity.”

“You invited a Daraspian?” Ravana replied equally softly but with scorn weighing her voice.

“All of them; they’re my neighbors. I didn’t imagine any would show. Irana heads a minor branch of the House down in Anteraas. Well, bluff called! Now we shall have to be warm and welcoming, and follow up with diplomatic and business opportunities for her, the scheming little bitch.”

“Even I know the Daraspians are trouble,” Natchua said at the same low volume. “What’s the worst case if we make this one unwelcome? I thought you said anybody who actually showed up would be lower nobility, not powerful enough to matter.”

“Our whole gambit here required us to move fast,” Malivette replied. “This necessitated incredibly short notice for the party. To invite nobility to a social event with less than a day’s notice is an insult; the dignity of the more powerful Houses demanded they snub us.”

Ravana picked up the explanation when she paused for breath. “To insult someone and then make it worth their while is a power move; to heap insult upon insult with no recompense is asking to be ganged up on by minor players who wouldn’t dare attack us on their own. Tonight we shall either gain significant influence among these lesser Houses or make a lot of enemies we don’t need, based on how we treat our guests.”

“What she’s saying, Natchua—”

“Yeah, yeah, be nice to the nest of vipers. I survived in Tar’naris as a farming peasant, I know how to avoid insulting the overbred wealthy.”

“How reassuring,” Ravana said with an audible smile.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Malivette added, “I saw the first one today. From a distance, of course.”

“First…?” Ravana shifted her head subtly to regard her sidelong.

“A young woman in the city. She had bleached her hair white and dyed a green stripe down the center.”

“What— Oy, that’s my thing!” Natchua snapped, barely remembering to remain still and not too loud while Ravana laughed quietly.

“You’re a celebrity, dear,” Malivette said with more than a touch of condescension. “If you’re going to cultivate a unique and striking appearance, people are going to imitate it.”

“Do try to enjoy it; this is the fun part,” Ravana chuckled. “If it becomes a trend, it will inevitably run its course and then you will find yourself the target of mockery for continuing to express a fashion which has fallen from vogue.”

“That is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Then you need to get out more,” Malivette said merrily. “If it makes you feel better, those colors look repulsive on a human.”

“Why on this blighted earth would that make me feel better?”

“Mm, that one’s Irana Daraspian, yes?” Ravana interjected. “In the red gown and with that thing in her hair?”

“It’s called a tiara, Ravana,” Malivette explained. “Yes, that’s she.”

“It is an asinine affectation and in the days when they were a sign of rank a bottom-feeder like her would be asking for a flogging by wearing it. But now I see she has found friends. And if I am not mistaken, those simpletons are trying to bully Juniper.”

“Lady Sarideh and Lady Volsten,” Malivette said. “I didn’t know they knew each other. Those are both new Houses, elevated after the Enchanter Wars. Little more than merchant syndicates that own some land. Still, there’ll be no end of paperwork if Juniper does them like they’re asking for.”

“June is very serious about her religion,” Natchua said, “and she’s not the kind of Omnist who’s into martial arts. She’ll speak politely to them until she gets tired of it and then walk—yep, there she goes.”

Across the lawn, the disinterested dryad had turned and strolled away from the three noblewomen with no outward sign of discomfiture. Unlike her ever-present pet Sniff, who raised his crest and hissed loudly, causing Lady Volsten to shriek and accidentally hurl her champagne glass. A ripple of laughter spread through the surrounding party guests.

“I cannot fathom what those three were trying to achieve,” Ravana murmured wonderingly.

“Juniper is prettier than they are, and has more powerful friends,” Malivette explained. “Thus, they went on the attack to cut her down. You surprise me, Ravana. This is Rich Girl 101.”

“I’m afraid my upbringing was rather…isolated. My understanding of noble society more heavily emphasized coercion and the thwarting of assassins than forming social ties.”

“That explains everything just so very well,” the vampire muttered.

Natchua’s lips curled in a reminiscent smile and she softly recited, “Two is the optimal number of hench wenches for the appearance-minded alpha bitch.”

“See?” Malivette said. “Even the surly drow knows this stuff better than you. We have got to bring you to more parties, Ravana.”

“Why two?” the Duchess Madouri demanded, still quietly but indulging in a tone of overt annoyance. “It seems to me that in any form of warfare, even social, the greater one’s forces, the better.”

“One follower is just a friend hanging out with you,” Natchua explained. “More than that, and you start having problems managing the pack, plus the risk increases of one aspiring to unseat your position.”

“None of my friends behave that way,” Ravana said, frowning. “It sounds exhausting and self-defeating.”

“If you’re referring to your roommates, they’re all working-class people and thus more generally sensible than nobles,” Natchua agreed. “Anyway, did you see how those other two flanked Daraspian, one to each side? Social threat display. You can target one victim with that for good effect, while keeping the group small enough to maneuver through crowds, and best of all it emphasizes who’s in command.”

“I am more than a little disturbed to learn how much you’re absorbing from those succubi of yours,” Malivette commented.

Ravana glanced sidelong down their own formation, where Malivette, as the hostess, stood in the center.

“Oh, well played, Vette.”

“Ain’t my first rodeo, cowgirl,” the vampire said smugly.

“What the hell?” Natchua suddenly hissed, her eyes fixing on the gates and the figures which had just stepped through them. “What are they doing here?”

“Easy,” Malivette soothed. “Remember, poise. Don’t let them unsettle you.”

“Which one of you invited her?”

“Neither of us know the drow, I assumed it was you.”

“I sent announcement messages to my mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai stating that House Dalmiss was specifically unwelcome here—”

“Nice,” Malivette said with an approving grin. “Power move.”

“—but I definitely didn’t reach out to her!”

Ravana cleared her throat softly. “That is my friend Magister Talvrin, who is here at my invitation, and I gather, her surprising choice of plus one.”

The two women who had just stepped into the grounds caused a wide ripple of reaction from the assembled minor nobility. Of them, Talvrin was by far the most ostentatious, wearing a gown that appeared to be woven from shimmering streamers of azure light. A heavy golden mantle hovered six inches off her shoulders, trailing another light-woven cape down her back, and above her head floated a bejeweled circlet which slowly rotated in the air.

At her side, looking spartan by comparison in her dark formal robes, was Matriarch Ashaele of House Awarrion.

“Do you suppose she’s naked under that lightshow?” Malivette wondered.

“You know she can hear us, right?” Natchua muttered.

“Yup.”

Just below them, a man approached the steps a shade closer than was strictly proper given that the Duchesses had not officially started the festivities. Lars Dufresne, formerly Grusser as recently as that morning and now legally Malivette’s son despite being roughly her age, glanced pointedly around at the crowd and then gave his head of House a significant look with his eyebrows raised. Notably, he had spent the last several minutes discreetly gathering the attendees who the Duchesses knew from Last Rock; they had now arranged themselves in a staggered formation that at a glance looked like nothing but people standing around chatting but which nonetheless formed a bulwark between the steps and the crowd beyond.

“Your man has a deft hand at these maneuvers, Malivette,” Ravana said with clear approval. “I see why you chose him.”

“I am so glad Sherwin didn’t want to come,” Natchua muttered.

“And I believe he’s right,” Malivette decided. “Come, ladies. It’s time to face the music.”

As one, they stepped forward and down the stairs. The entire party responded, everyone shifting to face them and breaking into polite applause as the three heads of House finally set foot on the ground and began, officially, to mingle.

Thanks to Lars’s tactics, they were first met by friendly faces which protected them from the fortune-seekers beyond. Most of those closest by were the guests currently staying at Ravana’s mansion, though a few others from the school itself had turned up in response to the belated invitations.

Professor Rafe inhaled deeply, his thin chest swelling as he prepared to deliver his customary greeting.

Malivette pointed one finger at him. “So help me, little man, I will drain you like a shot of bourbon.”

At Rafe’s side, Professor Yornhaldt drove a blocky elbow into his waist, eliciting a grunt. “Thank you for thinking of us, ladies, this is just the diversion the winter break needed. Arachne said she might drop by later.”

“Meaning,” Rafe added, “she’ll only show up when she can make a grand entrance and be the center of attention.”

“Oh, good,” Ravana said cheerfully, “something to look forward to.”

Natchua, meanwhile, had gravitated toward the current junior class, those who had come, her eyes flicking to Trissiny’s extra guest.

“Teal and Shaeine have an important event in Madouris tonight,” Toby said to her, “and Ruda stayed to support them.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” Natchua assured them. “This was stupidly short notice and it’s very good of you all to have come. I really appreciate it.”

“Wow,” said Gabriel, “not even noble for a day and somebody’s already taught her manners.”

“Trissiny,” Natchua said pleasantly, “if Gabe’s gonna act like this all night I may loan you one of the punchbowls.”

The Hand of Avei heaved a sigh. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

“Yeah, people are so dramatic,” Natchua agreed with a solemn nod. “You waterboard one person in public and everybody gets an attitude.”

“This is a great party, Natchua! Congratulations on everything!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I never would’ve expected this but I really hope it works out well for you! Do you think Vette would mind if I examined these levitating constructs? They’ve got several really powerful static enchantments that you don’t often see combined but the overall structure is quite elegantly designed! I promise I won’t break one!”

“I…guess that’s…and she’s gone,” Natchua said, watching Fross’s glow disappear as the pixie zoomed right into the corona of light around one of the floating sources of heat and illumination. “So! If I had to guess, you must be Bishop Darling.”

“That I am,” he said with a gallant bow, taking her hand and raising it gracefully to his lips. “My heartfelt congratulations on your ascendance, Duchess Leduc. This is precisely the kick in the pants to Imperial nobility that Eserites like myself love to watch unfold.” Straightening back up, he winked as he released her hand. “Tell me, before I embarrass myself, what’s your policy on social flirting?”

“That’s…very flattering, your Grace,” she said with a smile of surprised amusement, “but I’m not on the market.”

“Oh, good heavens no, I’m way too old for you anyway. Sometimes the fun of a chase is not the catch, though. Have you ever seen a dog running after an enchanted carriage and then looking lost and confused when it stopped?”

“Wow,” she said. “You were not kidding, Trissiny. I think I owe you an apology.”

Darling turned a sidelong look on Trissiny. “Oh? Scale of one to ten, Thorn, how offended should I be?”

“How offended do you want to be?” she retorted. “I’m flexible.”

“Anyway,” said Darling, “I understand you wished to have a private chat later, your Grace, which would of course be both an honor and a pleasure. More the former than the latter, don’t worry! But I wouldn’t dream of monopolizing your time so early in the evening.”

“What’s this, now?” Malivette inquired, sliding into the conversation. “And a good evening to you, Bishop Darling, how absolutely lovely to see you again.”

“Duchess Dufresne! You’ve done an absolute wonder with this place, I swear I didn’t recognize it.”

Natchua glanced rapidly between them and then smirked. “Well, discretion aside, Malivette is my dear friend and political ally, and I wouldn’t dream of going behind her back. Vette, Trissiny was good enough to bring the Bishop at my request. I wanted to see about bringing the local Guild presence back up to a full complement for a city this size.”

Malivette was holding a wineglass. Her grip did not visibly shift, and her already-bloodless fingers didn’t whiten when flexed anyway, but abruptly a hairline crack appeared on it. “Did you, now?” she inquired in a saccharine tone that made most of the onlookers take a step back.

“Why, my dear Duchess,” Darling said smoothly, “I do hope this is not an unwelcome surprise! If you have some…specific objection to an Eserite presence in your city, I should be only too happy to convey it to Boss Tricks. I’m sure he would be most intrigued to hear exactly why.”

The vampire turned her pleasant smile upon him, saying nothing. He smiled right back, not yielding an inch.

“As much as I’m tempted to see how this plays out,” Natchua interjected, “you need to settle down, Vette. You’re the one who set up our whole alliance of Houses, here. You’re surely aware that Ravana has already thrust herself into the middle of the Shaathist schism on the reformist side, and how that places us with regard to the Universal Church. Whatever else Eserites do, right now strengthening ties with the Thieves’ Guild is just good sense.”

“After tomorrow,” Toby interjected in a tone of calm that seemed to almost forcibly leech some of the tension from the air, “that position will also bring you into alignment with the three Trinity cults. I don’t pretend to understand the undercurrents here, but Natchua is correct. It’s an advantageous position.”

“Perhaps we should indeed have a nice, discreet chat about this,” Malivette said. “I trust you won’t mind if I tag along, your Grace?”

“Why, your Grace, if Duchess Leduc doesn’t object, nothing ever makes me happier than the company of yet another charming young lady,” he said smoothly.

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said, staring at him. “How do women not stab you? I would get stabbed, acting like that.”

“Yeah, you probably would, Gabe,” Darling agreed. “The secret is to pick your targets. It’s actually not difficult to avoid pestering people who won’t find it funny.”

Trissiny smiled mischievously. “And yet…”

“You hush it,” Gabriel ordered. “Anyway, Natch, I don’t see, um…”

“Jonathan’s inside, hanging out with the servants in the kitchen,” she said. “He was almost as put off as me at the thought of having to hobnob with nobles, and since I’m the only one who actually has to I didn’t have the heart to insist he join me out here. And Hesthri is here. Over there, by the buffet. She’s wearing a disguise ring and serving canapes.”

Gabriel straightened up, scowling. “You made her serve food?”

“Her idea,” Natchua clarified grinning at him, “and she thought it was hilarious. I mostly went along because I was curious whether you’d forget you were supposed to be all suspicious of her and get offended on her behalf. Thanks a lot, by the way, now I owe Jonathan a doubloon.”

He stared at her, blinking repeatedly, while Trissiny and Toby looked elsewhere and did a poor job of not laughing out loud.

“Anyway,” Natchua said, nodding as gracefully as she could manage to everyone, “please excuse me for scampering off, but I need to go have a…less pleasant conversation. I’ll chat with you soon, Bishop Darling. And all of you, I hope. I’ll probably be in desperate need of better company before this night is over.”

“I don’t know about better,” Toby said with a smile, “but we can probably do less stressful. Break a leg, Natch.”

She smiled at him and turned away. The expression slid off her face, replaced by a grim stare as she strode straight for Talvrin and Ashaele.

Watching her go, Darling let out a low whistle. “I wonder if it might be safest to remove ourselves from the fallout radius?”

“Natchua has her issues, but she’s not some kind of wild animal,” Gabriel said grudgingly. “It’s not like she’ll— What the hell?”

All of them turned as their group was approached by a fifth, Malivette having already slipped away to join Ravana in speaking with some of the others from Last Rock. The paladins and Bishop all raised their eyebrows in surprised response to their new arrival’s welcoming smile.

“Good evening, children. Antonio,” she said, nodding her head courteously.

“Branwen,” said Darling, staring at her. “Well, well. I was…specifically not expecting you.”

“How the hell’d you get in here?” Gabriel demanded. “There’s no way you were invited.”

“It’s a funny thing, celebrity,” Bishop Snowe replied with a benign smile. “When one is a Bishop of the Universal Church and a well-known columnist and public speaker, one seldom encounters servants willing to risk turning one away.”

“Mm,” Toby murmured blandly. “When you put it like that, it stands to reason. I guess you don’t even strictly need to be a busty redhead anymore.” Trissiny and Gabriel both turned to him in utter surprise; Darling clenched his lips to suppress a grin.

Bishop Snowe was not in the least put off, just smiling mischievously at Toby. “No, that’s purely for my own enjoyment, although it doesn’t hurt. That’s here, though. The guardians of Madouri Manor are made of more disciplined stuff; that tends to be the case in any household overseen by a Butler. Regardless, I don’t plan to remain long enough to wear out my welcome. Speaking of invitations, I am only here to deliver one, in a manner of speaking. Antonio, would you excuse us for a moment?”

Darling raised one eyebrow, and then turned to the paladins. “What do you think? Shall I excuse you for a moment?”

“We like him more than you,” Trissiny said curtly to Snowe. “What do you want?”

“As you wish,” she replied with a gracious bow of her head. Then she straightened and her intonation shifted to a formal, even ceremonious declamation as she held her head high. “Hands of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, by the ancient compact of the Universal Church which binds together the faiths of the Pantheon in common cause, you are summoned by his Holiness Archpope Justinian to his presence.”

They all stared at her in astonished silence.

“Not right this minute, of course,” Branwen continued, abruptly reverting to her pleasantly casual demeanor. “Please, take your time and enjoy the party; I understand the new Duchess Leduc is rather counting on your support. But this evening, afterward, his Holiness awaits you at the Grand Cathedral. I fear it will be rather late by then, but perhaps it’s for the best. With most of the world asleep, you should have a greater expectation of privacy.”

“And for what possible reason would we wish to accommodate him?” Toby asked at last.

“He doesn’t actually have the authority to command us,” Trissiny added, “and quite frankly I’m disinclined to create the impression that he can.”

“It is an invitation,” Branwen said gently, “not a command. But I cannot imagine why you would want to decline, in all honesty.”

“Yes you can,” Darling replied in apparently perfect calm. “Don’t play games like that with this lot, Bran, it’s really not helping your case.”

“Very well, my apologies,” she said, nodding her head again. “I of course cannot speak for his Holiness’s inner thoughts; I know only what he has told me. And in all honesty, he does take actions which I neither understand nor approve of. But I remain loyal to his cause, because he has earned that trust from me. I suppose, however,” she went on in a musing tone, “that if I were in his position, I would consider your unfolding plot to politically attack him and preemptively set you up to discredit yourselves by refusing a perfectly reasonable invitation to talk in favor of partying with your warlock drow friend. In what amounts to a battle of public appearances, such things do matter a great deal.”

They all stared at her again, once more reduced to silence.

“On the other hand,” Branwen said pleasantly, “perhaps I am just employing reverse psychology to nudge you in the direction I want. I suppose it must be a dilemma.”

“Gabe,” said Trissiny, staring at the Izarite Bishop, “fetch me a punchbowl.”

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16 – 30

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My help?”

Natchua made a wry expression. “Is that so astonishing? You’re a paladin, I thought helping people was all part of the job.”

“Well, yes, but… I mean, in very specific… I’m just surprised you need something from me.” Trissiny cleared her throat, grasping for the remnants of her poise and studiously ignoring Gabriel’s insufferable grin. “Is this somehow related to your, ah, social event this evening? And congratulations on that, by the way.”

“It is, yes, and thank you,” Natchua replied, grimacing.

“Okay, not to de-Rail this,” Gabriel interjected, “but I’m sorry, I’ve just gotta. You’re going to be a noble, now? An Imperial noble?”

“A Duchess, so they tell me,” Natchua grumbled, her expression growing if anything more unhappy. “Look, I’m aware this whole thing probably seems like me conning my way into… Well, let me just be clear, this is something Malivette and Ravana have cooked up between them, and Sherwin’s on board because, honestly, can you imagine him holding out with those two trying to wheedle him into doing whatever thing they have in mind?”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, I can see it.”

“How has nobody murdered him yet? I shoulda taken that bet when Ruda offered it.”

“I,” Natchua continued irritably, “am going along with this because I have been persuaded that it’s in the best interests of Veilgrad, and of…me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have reservations.”

“Yeah, funny how becoming a high-ranking aristocrat can be in the best interests of you,” Gabriel said innocently.

“Being involved in that kind of power is very much a double-edged sword, Gabriel, and I know you’re smart enough to know that. For one thing, after this summer, apparently it carries a risk of being visited by you three in a waterboarding mood!”

“You really know how to ask for a favor,” Trissiny snapped.

Natchua pressed one hand to the side of her face and closed her eyes for a moment. “I… Sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry, that’s just the worry talking. Omnu’s balls, I am out of my depth with this entire thing… Oh, uh, sorry, Toby.”

“If he’s not going to take exception to that, I’m certainly not,” Toby replied, amused. “I decided long ago that picking my battles meant that one was never going to be on the agenda. Why don’t we have a seat over here, by the fireplace? I can tell you’re stressed by all this, Natchua. These things are often easier to discuss in more comfortable surroundings. Care for something to nosh? Apparently the kitchen here is always open, and the staff seems to take real pride in fulfilling requests.”

“Still the team dad, I see,” Natchua said, even as she allowed him to lead her to the sofa nearest the main hearth. “Uh, no thanks, I’m honestly too nervous to eat. You all got your invitations, right?”

“We did,” Trissiny answered, perching on the arm of a plush armchair while Gabriel flopped fully into another one. Toby and Natchua both elected to stand, she already beginning to pace back and forth in front of the fire. “Thanks for thinking of us, Natchua, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it. No slight intended, we’re just…kind of up to our necks in something, here.”

“That’s fine, I know it’s ridiculously short notice,” Natchua agreed, nodding. “It’s… Okay, that’s as good a segue as any. All this is pretty much what I wanted to ask you about, Trissiny.”

Segue or not, she then stopped talking, pacing a few laps up and down in front of the fire with a perturbed expression while the three paladins watched. After a few seconds, Gabriel opened his mouth, but Toby caught his eye and gave a single shake of his head. It was only a moment longer before Natchua finally found the thread of her thoughts again.

“So, there’s a lot of preparatory work involved in this noble thing, you know? And because Vette and Ravana are so dead set on moving fast to take everybody by surprise, it’s all being crammed in at the last second, so I’ve spent my morning dealing with… Just, all kinds of bullshit. But anyway, the thing that stuck out to me was my interview with the old steward of House Leduc. Scrappy old Vernisite guy, seems to be completely still there in the head despite his age. Under Sherwin he’s had basically nothing to do except make sure the Manor gets its weekly food delivery, and he was so excited that it’s going to be an actual House again.”

“What does that entail, exactly?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, being an actual House again. Not that I’m criticizing, you understand. Even you cannot possibly be a worse leader than Sherwin.”

“I don’t entirely know is the problem,” Natchua said in mounting frustration. “That’s exactly the issue! Apparently there’s a lot and I comprehend very little of it, but there are all these well-trained people who are oh so happy to step in and take all the details off my hands. It all came to a head for me when I was listening to Mr. Vonstraum—uh, that’s the steward I was talking about—tell me what kind of business and financial enterprises a fully active noble House is expected to do, and then there was this…this one moment.”

She abruptly stopped pacing, turning to meet Trissiny’s eyes.

“He mentioned how the Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is basically an afterthought since House Leduc withdrew from all its activities. Just a few people with nothing to do, really.”

“We discovered that when we were there,” Toby said, nodding. “What Eserites there still are have other priorities, too. Apparently the Underboss is in the Army, and one of the others ended up as one of Malivette’s…uh, attendants.”

“Jade, yeah,” Natchua said with a mirthless grin. “’Attendant’ is a word for it, I guess. But anyway, it was the way Vonstraum said this. He was practically drooling at the prospect of doing business in a Guild-free city.”

“I was never real clear on why that’s the case,” Gabriel added. “What about Veilgrad discourages Eserite activity?”

“Veilgrad’s a scary place,” Trissiny explained. “The Guild is active where there are powerful interests being predatory. And…that’s not really how things work, there; the usual predators are the prey. With the local ruler being a fair-minded vampire with an interventionist streak, it’s very hard for large-scale corruption that to take root. The way I understand it, the Guild was only needed to keep House Leduc itself in check, because they were the only ones with the oomph to push back against House Dufresne. With them effectively gone…” She spread her hands in a half-shrug.

“Exactly!” Natchua nodded. “That’s it exactly. To be frank, I’m not sure it was ever a great idea for the Guild to draw down with Malivette in charge, just because she doesn’t tend to pick on the little guys; that’s a lady who urgently needs some checks on her power if I ever met one. But now House Leduc is coming back, and… Trissiny, you’re the only Guild contact I know. I need to get more people out there to my city. Veilgrad needs a full Thieves’ Guild presence, as quickly as possible.”

All three stared at her in surprise while she gazed earnestly at Trissiny.

“Wait, so…” Toby blinked. “Your first act upon joining the nobility is to try to increase the Eserite presence in your domain? You do know how they tend to feel about nobles?”

“Of course I know,” Natchua said testily, shooting him a scowl. “That is literally the entire point, Caine, I thought I just explained that.”

“Well, this is pretty on-brand for you, Natch,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “First you make me grudgingly respect you, and then you immediately ruin it.”

“…sorry.” The drow lowered her eyes, her shoulder shifting in a small exhalation. “I know, you’re right, I’m not very… Well, you know. It’d be easy enough to say I’m only going to do business in a certain way, but the overarching lesson of my day so far has been that I do not in the slightest understand how a noble House operates. It’s a hugely complex enterprise, and apparently it’s able to function pretty well without much direct oversight, but here’s the thing: my options are to reactivate what remains of the old Leduc structure, with all the corruption and predation that implies, or allow Malivette to basically hand-pick one for me, which’ll effectively make me her pawn. I’d be wary of that even if she and Ravana weren’t conspiring to reshape the political landscape of the Empire for their personal benefit. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m a pretty fast learner; I know I’ll ultimately have it in hand, and be able to control my people properly. But that’s eventually. Nobles get trained for this from birth, and for good reason. It’ll likely take me years to be in full control, and in that time the gods only know what kind of havoc will be unleashed in my name, to say nothing of what Vette will do with her own reaffirmed authority over the province. I just… I will feel a lot safer with a firm presence in Veilgrad to keep the nobles in check. At least until I can wrap my head around the running of House Leduc’s interests enough to handpick better people for its agents and put some rules in place, but even after that point. Just, on general principles, you know? Nobles should not be free to do whatever goddamn thing they want, and with Vette in as good as she is with the Throne, Tiraas won’t help. I need the Guild. Can you help me, Trissiny?”

Her expression was very nearly pleading.

Trissiny inhaled deeply, blinking her eyes as if she was having difficulty processing all this. “Okay… Well, first of all, Natchua, there’s really not a thing I can do about this. I’ve got no operational control at all within the Guild.”

“What?” Natchua looked incredulous. “You don’t— But wasn’t it a huge deal when you joined up with them? I mean, you’re the Hand of Avei!”

“And in the Sisterhood of Avei, yes, that’s a big deal,” Trissiny said wryly, “but one thing Eserites really do not like is people trying to claim unearned authority over them. My Avenist rank means nothing there except for a quick way to piss everybody off if I tried throwing it around. In the Thieves’ Guild I’m just a bottom-ranking neophyte enforcer with no major jobs to her name and only a few connections.”

“I see.” Natchua’s shoulders slumped.

“Now, hang on,” said Trissiny. “Guys, were you leaning toward attending that coming-out party at Malivette’s place tonight? I know we’re busy, but…”

“I’m not sure what else is going to happen on this front between now and tomorrow,” said Toby. “That’s when our big announcements are all being made, right?”

“I was definitely planning to go,” Gabriel added. “Accepting Ravana’s invitation out here meant not going home for the winter; I’m not gonna pass up a chance to see my dad again if one pops up like this.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Natchua said, nodding eagerly at him. “Hesthri would also love a chance to spend some time with you.”

“Mnh,” he grunted, almost aggressively noncommittal.

“Right, so, here’s the bad news,” said Trissiny. “There’s some kind of issue in the Guild’s upper leadership right now that may impede any major operations or reassignments. The good news is that what you’re talking about here should appeal to any Eserite in principle. And I do happen to know exactly the right person to pull the strings I can’t and get some more people sent out to Veilgrad, if it can be done. So yeah, Natchua, I’ll be there tonight, and if I can make my RSVP plus one, I may be able to answer your request.”


“I’ve gotta say, Sweet, I’m surprised to see you comin’ to me with this.”

Ever the gracious host, Vandro waited till his guest was comfortably seated in his parlor with a scone in hand and the other members of the household likewise served before firing off the piercing question.

“Well, who else would I come to?” Sweet asked with his usual disarming grin, one Webs would naturally recognize as a facade. He wasn’t interested in wasting time playing mind games with this one; so long as Webs was likewise willing to keep the conversational chicanery to the necessary minimum, there was no reason this couldn’t be a civil discussion. “You know I like to cultivate my own networks, but let’s be honest, the both of us inherently limit ourselves purely because of who we choose to pal around with. And I’ll freely admit that the political hamster wheel I’ve been running since Ninkabi has cut down on my ability to keep up with even my usual rounds in the city. If I’m looking for dirt on Tricks… Well, who’s the most well-connected critic of Tricks to be found?”

“Hm,” Vandro murmured, actually taking a sip of his omnipresent blue cocktail. Sweet took that as a sign he was surprised by all this; the man was famously never without an alcoholic drink, but usually brandished it undrunk as a conversational prop, and was known to put people off guard by pretending to be impaired while stone sober.

He was the only one drinking. Sweet and Thumper had both declined cocktails, and Wilberforce hadn’t even bothered to ask Gimmick. The Butler was now off in the kitchen preparing tea while the four of them sat around the low parlor table with scones which none of them were eating.

Vandro was silent for the moment, holding the cocktail just under his nose and studying Sweet through pensively narrowed eyes. That was a good sign; he’d take pains to obscure his acute analysis if he thought they were at cross-purposes. Always ready to deflect awkwardness anyway, Sweet decided to give Webs whatever time he needed to ponder by switching the focus of the conversation.

“Thumper, you’re limping. What’ve you done to yourself this time? I honestly thought you’d lay low for a while after you got out Style’s tender care.”

“You bet your ass I have,” Thumper assured him. “I’m fine, Sweet, this is just a li’l momento of my last chat with Style. It’ll straighten out in time.”

“What?” Sweet scowled in sudden displeasure. “Style wasn’t supposed to fucking maim you, the Boss was crystal clear on that.”

“Oh, she didn’t,” Webs interjected, now watching Thumper with an annoyed grimace. “Style’s nothing if not a pro. And Jerry here would be back to a hundred percent long since if he’d gotten a proper healing and then stayed off his feet for a week like the docs goddamn well instructed. I keep tellin’ you, boy, what’s the damn point of me hirin’ the best healers in the capital if you won’t fucking do what they say?”

“I hear you, Alan,” Shook replied with the patience of a man who’d had this conversation repeatedly and expected to do so again. “An’ like I told you, I’m fine. It’s fine. Main project of my life right now is gettin’ my own head together, what with all the magic bullshit and that succubus, not to mention cleaning up after my own goddamn stupidity. A little pain here an’ there helps me focus. It’s not like I don’t have it coming, anyway.”

“Omnu’s balls, Thumper!” Sweet exclaimed. “You have got an absolute genius for taking the wrong lesson from any given situation. Walking around wounded is useful for exactly nothing! You wanna engage in self-flagellating bullshit, just join the Huntsmen and have done with it.”

“The hell you say,” Thumper retorted with a smirk, straightening one of his lapels. “Have you seen how those assholes dress?”

“He has been attending Avenist temple services,” Saduko commented, and then met Thumper’s annoyed scowl with a polite little smile.

“Yeah, and ain’t that the fuckin’ icing on the cake,” Vandro huffed.

“Hey, it’s instructive!” Shook protested. “I’ve already spotted half a dozen specific ways in which they are full a’ shit, but also a good handful of useful thinkin’ points I never considered before. Man’s gotta keep an open mind, y’know? Just not too open.”

Vandro cleared his throat pointedly before bringing the conversation back on track. “Well, Sweet, I gotta ask: what is it about this that’s got you scheming to knock Tricks off his pedestal? So he’s bein’ high-handed and too much in control; I’ve been sayin’ that for years.”

“First of all,” Sweet said flatly, setting his scone and plate down on the table, “nobody’s knocking anybody anywhere. My whole point here is to find out if it’s gonna be necessary to do anything about Tricks, which is why I’m here asking what else you might know about him overreaching.”

“All right, well, fact remains, it seems like an arbitrary thing to me. So he tried to rip off the Falconers. Why’re you so fond of them? Or that weirdo fuckin’ demon dog of theirs?”

“I struggle to have any opinion about the Falconers or their pets,” Sweet replied. “They seem okay, for industrialists, but who’s got tears to spare for the problems of rich people? My issue is who they’re connected to. That dog also belongs to the drow wife of the Falconer heiress, who is a noble of the Narisian diplomatic House—and this right at a moment when shit between the elves and the Empire is at maximum tension to begin with. And then there is fucking Vadrieny. That little snatch-and-grab could’ve kicked off a massive diplomatic crisis, which would make it a colossally goddamn stupid thing to do, and it sent two Guild members in good standing right into the claws of an archdemon without warning ‘em they were about to piss her off. Whatever you think about Tricks’s leadership style, he’s never been stupid, and he has never mishandled honest thieves like that before. Something is up, Webs.”

“Huh,” Vandro grunted, swirling his cocktail and staring at it. “When y’put it like that, I do kinda see your point. But that highlights the problem here, Sweet: it takes a little explainin’ to the likes of me to suss out why Tricks may be acting out of character. By the same token, most of my, shall we call ‘em, social circle likely haven’t noticed anything outta the ordinary either. Those who think the way I do are not likely to be happy about the Boss anyway, and I can’t say how many will share your observation that this is something new an’ different.”

Saduko cleared her throat. “Also, as Webs has been very clear that he is not interested in plotting to unseat the Boss, most of those who have his ear will not have been watching Tricks more closely than anyone else.”

Sweet raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Yeah, while we’re talkin’ about this, I gotta say I never got it,” Thumper admitted. “You’re always goin’ on about how much you don’t like Tricks’s leadership, Alan. That Om’ponole job in Onkawa that went so completely tits up sounded like you were beginning to work on a longer-term plan to undercut his authority. What changed?”

“You think anything’s changed?” Vandro chuckled. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Jerry m’boy, I’ve spent the last couple years largely worryin’ about you. But no, I have still been running jobs, and even moved myself back here to Tricks’s backyard to keep doin’ it. Being that I am not angling to take over his position, the best play to undercut him is to earn more cred than he is while loudly complaining about his leadership. Truth be told, it’s not gonna draw much attention except from the people who specifically keep an eye on Guild politics. But then, that’s exactly the point.”

“I’m not sure I see the point of it, then,” said Thumper. “You’d be as good a Boss as he is. If you’re not gonna try to take over, what—”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah!” Vandro leaned back in his seat, holding up his cocktail and his free hand in a defensive gesture. “I’m an operations guy, Jerry. That’s what I do: I plan big jobs and direct my minions with a firm guiding hand. The only thing that makes me any better than Tricks is I damn well know my place! The Guild’s not supposed to be run like a tight ship. Boss Webs would be the same shit from a new asshole. That’s why I’m not trying to unseat the Boss. I got no business doing that, when there’s no adequate replacement for him lined up. Best use of me right now is to use my influence to counter his.”

“It might not be as hard as you think,” Sweet murmured. “Tricks has hinted to me for years that he wouldn’t mind passing the job back…”

“Perhaps I do not understand,” Saduko said delicately. “I know the central operation of the Guild in Sifan is different, as with all the Pantheon cults. Leadership there is a position of honor, for which there is much competition. Is it truly not so in Tiraas?”

“Aren’t you half-Sheng?” Thumper asked. “I thought their branch of the Guild ran more or less like the Imperial one.”

“I am an Imperial citizen,” she said in such an icy tone that he leaned away from her, “and I have never been to Shengdu.”

“Way I hear it, nothing there that’s worth seeing is still standing after the civil war,” Vandro said lightly. “But no, Gimmick, around these parts we take it as given that anybody who wants to be in power is automatically disqualified. So,” he added with a grimace, “I’m well aware that my carrying on may result in exactly that. If I just didn’t care for the position, I might suck it up and try to move in on Tricks anyway, but my specific point is that I wouldn’t be a better Boss than he is—or even a much different one. So me tryin’ to take his job would be nothing but a completely pointless upset of the Guild’s operations. But!”

He leaned forward, brandishing his cocktail almost accusingly at Sweet.

“Now you’ve brought this up, Sweet, I’ll tell you what I can do for you. I got no answers for you right now, but you’re right that I’m in good with the people who can get ‘em. It’s a matter of askin’ some friends of mine to think carefully about things they may’ve seen lately, and start looking closer at other stuff. It’s doable. But the price I demand for this assistance is your backing if we decide what’s needed is a new Boss. I got somebody in mind who I think would be the best candidate to take over.”

“Once again, Webs,” Sweet said firmly, “I am not committing to that course of action yet. I’m still in the very early stages of deciding if that’s what needs to be done.”

“Of course, everybody’s clear on that,” Webs replied, waving his sloshing drink impatiently, “that’s why I said if with all the emphasis. If, Sweet.”

“All right, if,” he replied. “Obviously I’m not gonna sign off on something like that without knowing exactly who you’re planning to put forward.”

“Is it really not obvious?” Vandro grinned broadly at him. “Nobody here actually thinks we need a new Boss as such; we’re all just concerned about the current one. If the worst case scenario has to go down, it’ll mean massive disruption in the Guild, and the next poor bastard to fill the role needs to be both very familiar with its workings and very skilled at soothing people’s ruffled feathers and coaxing folks back to business as usual. I’m talking about you, Sweet.”

“Huh,” Thumper said into the startled silence which ensued. He and Gimmick were both studying Sweet pensively. That was the moment when Wilberforce bustled back into the room with a laden tray and began pouring tea.

“I, uh… I feel like I’ve skipped a chapter, here,” Sweet admitted after taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “It was my impression you weren’t much more pleased with my performance as Boss than Tricks’s, Alan.”

“Only problem I had with you was that your obsession with not rocking the boat came right after Catseye set it on a dangerous course, Antonio. That woulda been a problem just because she was so ham-fisted, but there’s also the fact that trying to transition from a Boss who was boinking the Empress to a Boss and an Emperor who weren’t even on speaking terms without functionally changing our methods made our legal position shakier than it needed to be.”

Thumper had just choked on a bite of his scone, and Saduko hesitated in lifting her teacup, staring at Vandro with wide eyes. Wilberforce simply carried on distributing cups as if he could hear none of this.

“Hey, now, let’s not distribute scurrilous rumors about the dead,” Sweet protested.

“Pardon me,” Vandro said wryly, “but isn’t your whole point in bein’ here an acknowledgment that I know stuff you don’t? Trust me, Sweet. It wasn’t every Thursday night or nothin’, but Catseye and Theasia hit the sheets at least a handful of times during their overlapping reigns. They were in bed politically speaking on a much consistent basis, to the point of the Guild being used more’n a few times to shut down Theasia’s opponents. You’re pretty cozy with the Empire, true, but not in the same way, and your throwdown with Justinian this fall proved to my satisfaction you’ve got a line past which you’ll take a stand for Eserite principle. What is important here is that you are here, concerned about this and taking action. If it turns out that Tricks has gone bad and needs to go, I’m satisfied you will recognize the need for change and do what needs to be done to fix whatever else he broke. I’ll have your back, if that’s the case, but I won’t try to tell you what to do. Me bein’ the power behind the throne ain’t any better than me taking over in person. So that’s the deal, Sweet. I’ll help you figure out what’s up, on the condition that if we decide Tricks is compromised like you fear, you will take your old job back.”

Sweet stared at him in consternation; Webs just gazed back, a knowing little smile hovering around his mouth.

“It’d…probably be easier,” Thumper offered after a few seconds of silence. “Everybody likes you, Sweet. And we know from history that you’re a competent Boss.” Saduko nodded mutely.

“All right…look.” Sweet shook his head. “I am going to proceed on the assumption that this is all theoretical and hope that stays the case, all right?”

“Sure,” Webs agreed. “I would too. But…”

Sweet heaved a sigh. “But… I’m not gonna make you any promises about how long I would stay in the big chair, Webs. You no doubt remember I didn’t go for a fraction of Catseye’s longevity last time.”

“Even better,” Vandro said with a broad grin. “Cos I know you also won’t step down until you’ve got somebody lined up who you’re sure can handle the job right.”

“Isn’t that exactly what got us into this situation?”

Vandro shrugged. “If we’re proceeding on the assumption that whatever’s up with Tricks is a new development, I don’t see how you could’ve anticipated it years ago. And maybe this’ll teach you something about picking a successor with a less hands-on approach next time.”

“How sure are you that your network can turn up the info we need, anyway?”

“How sure are you that Tricks is actually compromised?” Vandro retorted with a smug little grin.

Sweet indulged in glaring at him. He had not come here prepared to make a decision like this… Which, of course, was exactly why Webs was springing it on him now. And the truth was, it was a well-sprung trap. If he tried to deflect or put this off, Webs would take it as a refusal, and then… Could he dig up the information he needed without him? That was frustratingly unclear. He’d already spoken with Glory, who was also well-connected in the city and throughout the Empire, and they had the same problem: both were known to be generally well-disposed toward Tricks, which meant Guild members who shared Vandro’s viewpoint would be skeptical of them if approached. Some could be brought around, sure, but how fast? How much time did they even have left to work on this?

Damn it, he was cornered. The decision had to be made now. He’d just have to hope it was the right call… And that he could fix it, somehow, if he was making a mistake.

“All right, Webs. Deal.”

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16 – 28

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McGraw had spent by far the majority of his career in the wilderness and small towns of the Great Plains frontier, but not all; he had ranged widely enough over the years to have been in more than a few urban safehouses. Enough, at least, to recognize one on sight. When you’d seen one, you’d seen them all, these empty but well-maintained residences kept by various powerful organizations against times when they needed to discreetly stash someone for a while.

They were so empty, despite being fully furnished. There was no personality or character, just bland arrangements of styleless furniture and only the most neutral and inoffensive of decoration, when there was any at all. Interestingly, he had always recognized the home of Bishop Darling as another such place. That had been only the first hint that “Bishop Darling” was a role being acted rather than a real person, McGraw was just as glad to have parted ways from the man on amicable terms before he had to find out what was underneath that mask. The Darling residence had even less personality than this place, which at least identified its owners by having golden eagle sigils or casually displayed copies of the Aveniad or Avenist librams in every room. The front parlor even had a full shrine to Avei; a small and plain one, but still. Avenists might occasionally mutter “war is deception” or some such aphorism but as a rule they didn’t care for sneaking around or hiding their intentions.

Following his careful exploration of the mid-sized middle-class townhouse (only three bedrooms, but none of the team were overly particular about their living conditions), he returned now to that front room, his first view down the hallway revealing Joe leaning against the wall and watching something.

“Serviceable place,” McGraw observed, approaching. “Cozy, but not—”

He broke off when Joe raised one finger to his lips, crossing the last few feet in silence to peek into the room.

Everyone else was here, Shay lounging in the room’s most comfortable chair and Casey also leaning against the wall, next to the door in a position which made her invisible to someone approaching it. McGraw had noted her tendency to do that and similar things; someone had taught this girl stealthy habits. They were all watching the fifth member of the group, who appeared to be doing particularly unconventional witchcraft in front of the little shrine to Avei.

Like most who’d gravitated or been assigned to the First Legion, their two actual priestesses of Avei did not exactly fit in with the rest of the Sisterhood. Shay Iraa liked beer and loud, off-key singing, and thus spent a lot of her free time in taverns frequently getting into brawls, which had only been tolerated because she had extricated an astonishing number of battered women from their situations. Even so, the Sisterhood was just as happy to have her off training in Viridill rather than having to be retrieved from jail every other week. All in all she resembled the popular stereotype of an Eserite, and was always ready to demonstrate that upside the head of anyone unwise enough to point it out.

Bandi Avelea, on the other hand, was easy to mistake for an Omnist, given her stereotypically serene bearing and devotion to the martial arts, as well as her emphasis on meditative and spiritual disciplines which were held in less esteem in the pragmatic Sisterhood. Indeed, upon first seeing her demonstrate her fighting style during a First Legion training session, McGraw (and others present) had mistaken it for a Sun Style sequence until she began serenely explaining and demonstrating on a luckless target dummy all the ways in which she could kill a person with one unarmed hand.

Now, Sister Bandi stood in a defined spell circle consisting only of seven crystals arranged around her, which McGraw only knew was fae in nature because of the unpleasant prickling it caused against all the arcane magic he had stored in his own aura. There was a limit to how much fae magic a priestess could do, if only because most fairy spirits objected to being in the presence of so much divine energy. But by settling for strictly low-tier spells and getting a little creative, one could always pick up some extra versatility from outside one’s own preferred skill; he’d done so himself.

What she was doing more resembled a very slow dance, or perhaps a martial arts sequence performed at half speed. The priestess, eyes closed, moved evenly through a fluid series of motions with her arms and legs, flowing in a manner that almost resembled water held within the tube delineated by her spell circle.

Casey leaned over to him and murmured, “She’s checking if we can pick up any traces magically. I figured it’s worth a try. Hate to just sit on our hands while we wait for General Avelea and Nandi to come back with more orders.”

McGraw nodded once, understanding. Trissiny was engaged in some high-level political maneuvering with the aid of her fellow paladins and had to return to their current base in Madouris to check up on the progress of that, while Shahai was at the Temple of Avei meeting with the High Commander. She, at least, would be back with orders by that evening, but Trissiny had been clear that there were numerous unexpected events in the air and she might not be able to return that day.

He leaned over toward Casey in turn, lowering his head and his voice to mumble in a low tone even Joe shouldn’t have been able to pick up. “I’ll get ya a rolled-up newspaper t’whack me with if y’want, boss lady, but meantime, a word of advice.”

Her eyes flicked up to his face, expression neutral, as he continued.

“Best way to impress folks like General Avelea is by not tryin’ to impress them. People of action only get irritated if the spot you maneuvering for favor.”

The sergeant’s cheeks darkened slightly and he saw her eyes narrow in displeasure, just as expected.

But then Casey turned her head to resume watching Bandi’s odd ritual, her expression of annoyance turning to one of contemplation. She didn’t even try to deny it; by that point, no one in the First Legion didn’t know Casey Elwick was an ardent fan of Trissiny Avelea and undoubtedly over the moon at having the chance to work directly under her.

“Okay, thanks for the tip,” she said softly, “but I don’t know what else to do, here. Irrespective of impressing anybody, we accomplish nothing by loafing around waiting for orders. It’s not like this is a regular Legion. If we can’t take some initiative toward the mission, what’s the point of us? If you’ve got a better idea for how to spend our time, Elias, I’m open to it.”

He quite liked Casey; for someone so young (he’d eat his hat if she was eighteen) she had a good head on her shoulders, and not only the habit of thinking carefully before acting but the solemn aspect of someone who had learned her restraint and strategy through suffering. She reminded him a lot of Joe, in that respect.

“When you put it that way, it does seem like the most solid move in our position,” McGraw agreed, tipping his hat. “My apologies, Sarge. Y’get to be my age and it’s easy to forget y’ain’t the only person in the room who knows what he’s doin’.”

She gave him a sidelong smile at that, but further conversation was cut off by the end of Sister Bandi’s ritual.

She straightened up, first raising her arms out to both sides and then bringing them up, overhead, and down to fold her hands at her waist, and finally opened her eyes. At that signal, all seven of the crystals around her tipped over in unison.

“It is well you insisted on this measure, Sergeant,” she said seriously.

“You got a lead?” Casey asked, straightening up.

“I did warn you that my very basic oracular craft is unlikely to pick up on trails of subtle maneuvering, and indeed I did not. But focusing upon the Purists, I was touched by spirits their intentions have moved. Vengeance, and violence. They are about to strike.”

At that, Joe also straightened up.

“At who?” Casey demanded.

Sister Bandi shook her head, the beads in her multitude of thin black braids clattering softly. “While the spirit is still upon me, I can lead us toward the place. But it is like a hound tracking a scent. I cannot see where it will end, or what will meet us there.”

“If those fools go after Trissiny, they’re toast,” Joe said. “They can’t be dumb enough not to know that…”

“Oh, I dunno,” Shay disagreed, “they are pretty damn dumb.”

“Trissiny’s Eserite friends,” Casey said. “Rasha, the Sakhavenids, and…what’s her name, the acrobat.”

Shay finally joined the others in bolting upright. “Shit. Disgraced or not, if priestesses of Avei stick swords into Guild apprentices it’ll be war in the streets by sunset.”

“Okay, we’ve gotta move,” Casey said, glancing rapidly back and forth across the group, all of whom were staring expectantly at her for orders. “But… We can’t just…”

She faltered, and McGraw gave her an encouraging nod. He could tell what needed to be done, and he would tell her if she didn’t work it out herself. But he waited, at least for a moment. Casey was smart enough and she’d grow faster as a leader and tactician by doing these things for herself. He knew his role in this party; it was the wise old wizard’s job to support the scrappy young heroes, not take over. Showing some faith in the young sergeant was worth a delay of a few minutes.

In fact, it only took a few seconds before her eyes fixed on him and widened slightly in inspiration. “Elias! Can I borrow one of those portal runes of yours?”

“What’s mine is yours, boss lady,” he agreed, already fishing one out of his pocket to hand over. “Though you do realize it won’t let you teleport without a push from yours truly.”

“No, but you can find it, right? And teleport to it?”

“Ah,” he said, nodding and deliberately clearing his expression as if catching onto her plan. It was the best strategy, which was why he’d immediately thought of it, but it cost nothing to encourage her. “You’re right, that I can.”

“Defending this position isn’t important in and of itself,” Casey said to the others, “but this is where the General and the Bishop expect to find us, so we can’t just disappear from here. Elias, I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave you behind for now. Wait here in case one or both of them returns; the rest of us will go try to intercept…whatever’s about to happen. You’ll be able to bring either of them right to us, if that’s what she orders. If we’re in deep trouble and need backup, I’ll destroy the rune. Will you be able to sense that?”

“With a little bit o’ concentration, I can manage that,” he agreed, nodding again. “Shouldn’t be too hard to ‘port right to its last position, then.”

“Good. If that happens, be ready for maximum trouble. Our goal here is to prevent a big messy fight from breaking out; if I have to call in our wizard for firepower, situation’s FUBAR.”

“Understood, Sarge.”

“Sorry for ditching you,” she said again. “It’s the best I can think of. All right, everybody, move out. Bandi, lead the way.”


The formal announcement would come the next day; Rouvad, like Trissiny, wanted to move fast and begin working before Justinian or anyone else had time to prepare political countermeasures. But before embarking on her new set of duties, the High Commander had wanted Nandi’s impressions of the project her previous squad had been working on and had to abandon upon the First Legion’s formation. Locke had, with Billie Fallowstone’s help, quietly continued her weapons research in Viridill, but now it seemed her erstwhile research partner had finalized her original project.

And so, Nandi found herself in Sister Eivery’s basement workshop with the gnomish priestess and the High Commander, holding and studying what had apparently been a regulation Silver Legion lance before it had been heavily modified.

“Well?” Eivery prompted, grinning up at them. “How’s it look?”

“Expensive,” Rouvad said flatly, taking the spear from Nandi. “Are the glowing runes and this… Is this shaft coated in lacquer? Eivery, is this absolutely necessary?”

“Arguably not,” the gnome admitted. “It put ‘em on the demonstration model, there, so you can see it’s doable. There’s a reason most battlestaves don’t ‘ave that, it adds to both the cost of manufacture an’ the weight. But the point is that it protects the runic engravings, see? Yer average battlestaff ain’t gonna see use as an actual staff, whereas the whole point o’ these, so I was given ta understand, is for ‘em to double as firearms and spears. Thus, they’re gonna be seein’ a lot o’ physical contact.”

“It can probably be dispensed with,” Nandi said. “If properly used, a lance’s head will see physical impact a lot more than the rest of it. Eivery’s right, though, the proof of concept is valuable.”

“Darn tootin’,” Sister Eivery agreed.

“Agreed,” Rouvad rumbled. “All right, I understand the clicker mechanism and I think I can intuit the reason for this clunky device at the base of the spearhead. What I note is that these runic engravings are a lot more extensive than on any battlestaff I’ve ever seen. Can you explain why?”

“Aye, give it ‘ere,” the priestess said imperiously, ignoring the sardonic expression with which the High Commander handed the modified lance back to her. “It’s the enhanced engravings that make it all work, see? I actually didn’t ‘ave the inspiration meself, but stumbled across th’basic method from the works of an old Hand of Salyrene, Andronimus the Spellblade.”

“Curious,” said Nandi. “If this solution was found as far back as Andronimus’s time, I wonder why no one has adapted it already? Magnan, at the very least, would have pounced on such an innovation, and he certainly had access to Salyrite records.”

“Aye, but it wasn’t in those records,” Eivery replied, grinning madly. “Andronimus ‘ad quite the stick up ‘is arse about people stealin’ ‘is works an’ never wrote down ‘is methods. This one was noted in the last place anybody’d think ta look, cos nobody studyin’ magic reads Tellwyrn’s published journals. They’re mostly a list o’ complaints about legendary figures, good fer comic relief an’ a touch o’ historical detail. But! In between gripin’ about how Andronimus snored an’ ate ‘orrible stinky cheeses and ‘ad terrible taste in music, she mentioned a sword he made that cast lightnin’ from the tip an’ how clever the method was. See, metal’s no good fer electrical enchantments on account of ‘ow conductive it is, so Andronimus placed the enchantment on the handle, which caused the lightnin’ bolt to form a few inches beyond the tip o’ the blade!”

“Hm,” Nandi murmured. “Modern firearms do that anyway, albeit just beyond the tip. Even a wooden shaft would be destroyed if you tried to channel that much electricity physically through it.”

“An’ there’s been no reason to modify that,” Eivery agreed, raising the lance to firing position and grasping the clicker, “cos nobody’s considered puttin’ blades on a firearm till that crazy elf came along. Modern armies fight at a distance. And so, behold!”

The crack of the weapon was functionally indistinguishable from that of a conventional battlestaff. Its lightning bolt charred and half-destroyed Eivery’s unshielded target dummy, with no backward arcing along the shaft or spearhead.

“And that heavy bit at the base of the spearhead,” Nandi said, “that has a grounding charm to prevent accidents?”

“Just so! Also, talkin’ of accidents, I discovered quite coincidentally that if ye do this, make the bolt form more’n a foot forward o’ the end o’ the staff, ye gain a lot of accuracy! These aren’t as precise as beam weapons, obviously, but they won’t arc nearly as much as an ordinary staff.”

“So,” Rouvad said, muted excitement in her voice, “you could increase that even further?”

“Sorry, Commander.” Eivery shook her head, raising the staff to plant its butt on the floor; in that position, it towered over her. “This is as far as I’ve been able to extend it. That’s why its engravings are so long. There’s just no room fer more.”

“But you said the original inspiration was a sword. On the handle! That was a much shorter surface and a much longer distance, if it sparked beyond the tip of the blade.”

“Aye, an’ I also said it was Hand of Salyrene that made it! Whaddaye want from me?”

Rouvad turned back to Nandi. “So you see where we are. Eivery has already refined Locke’s armor enchantments for efficiency; the updated versions will stand up to staff fire and augment soldiers’ abilities in several important respects. That makes an inherently more expensive kit than any Imperial trooper’s, but that’s the price to be paid for better-equipped soldiers. With the finished firing lance, we only have to begin training our soldiers with them.”

“First we ‘ave to make this stuff,” Eivery objected. “I don’t mind workin’ me fingers down, Commander, but I’m one gnome. If ye want me to equip a Legion, gimme ten years.”

“Yes, production is an issue,” Nandi agreed. “The Sisterhood does have a contract with Reviani Firearms, does it not? I know we don’t order many energy weapons, but for just that reason, they would likely appreciate the business.”

“I am…reluctant to give these specifications to an established firearms company,” Rouvad said, frowning. “We will have the element of surprise upon the first battlefield deployment of this equipment. The more people who know of it…”

“Well, buildin’ an in-house enchanter corps’ll take almost as long,” said Eivery.

“Our paladin has contacts with Falconer Industries,” Nandi commented. “They don’t make any weapons at the moment, but have the manufacturing capacity to produce almost anything. And if FI can’t do it, Geoffrey Falconer undoubtedly knows who can, and could arrange an introduction.”

“That’s a good idea,” Rouvad replied. “We’ll both be in close contact with Trissiny over the next few days anyway. I will raise it with her at the next opportunity. In the meantime, Eivery, please put together as many kits of the new gear as you can without exhausting yourself. I’ll assign you whatever enchanters we have who can be trusted. Ideally, I’d like to send a few to Locke’s outpost and be able to outfit one squad from the Third’s Cohort One to begin training.” She paused, then smiled. “I’m glad to have you back here, Nandi. I’ve missed your insight.”

“Aye, well, if we’re done with all the huggin’ an’ kissin’,” Eivery huffed, “I didn’t get ta tell ye the really neat thing I discovered.”

“There’s more?” Nandi asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Aye, another ‘appy little accident, ye might say,” the gnome chuckled, already at work unscrewing the spearhead from its shaft. “A neat trick that works as a result o’ this specific model’s design. If ye just take off the bayonet, like so… ‘Ere we are.”

She bounded over to a low stack of bricks she’d erected in the middle of the workshop in the form of a wall that was shoulder-high on her. Grinning, the gnome pressed the head of the lance, minus its blade, against the wall aiming at the half-wrecked target dummy which was across the room on its other side.

“Wait,” Nandi objected, “don’t tell me… There’s no way that thing can fire through walls?”

With another perfectly ordinary thunderclap, a bolt of lightning flashed from a point a few inches beyond the wall and finished demolishing the target.

“Eh? Eh?” Eivery cooed, waggling her eyebrows at their expressions. “Ehhhhhh?”


It had already been a full day not long after noon, and so by the time Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor she found herself eagerly looking forward to some lunch and a cup of hot, strong tea, and not just to help wash away the winter chill. A steward informed her upon arrival at the Manor that Ravana was not present at the moment, which she had to admit was something of a relief. Trissiny had yet to decide exactly how she felt about the diminutive Duchess, but one thing was certain: Ravana Madouri demanded her full attention when she was present, for much the same reason she would have carefully watched a large spider if she found herself in a room with one.

Returning to the suite her classmates were inhabiting during their vacation, she was pleased to find Toby and Gabriel there waiting for her, in fact having a conversation just inside the door, rather than in the sitting area of the main hall itself.

“Trissiny!” Gabe said, grinning in welcome. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. How’d it go?”

“All according to plan,” she replied, smiling back, “though my business today was mostly just squaring away details. I had a couple of interesting conversations with dragons I’d like your opinions on, but that can wait. How’d your meetings go? Are we ready to move?”

The boys exchanged a look, and then a nod.

“I’m as certain of Gwenfaer’s support as I reasonably can be,” Gabriel replied, turning back to her. “She gave every indication of wholeheartedly supporting the plan. And… Before that, we had a little chat about trust. I’m convinced of her reasons for opposing Justinian, and I made a point that she’s going to have to start being generally less squirrelly about it, but if she can behave I am willing to extend a little trust. At least, enough to let her earn more.”

“Well, good. It’s kind of funny, though, you being the one to make demands like that of your cult leader. Usually that relationship goes the other way.”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “I did not mention how I have valkyrie friends who can invisibly watch everything she does and a valkyrie scythe that Vidius explicitly wants used to cut the rot out of the cult. Seemed kind of redundant, y’know? She’s a sharp enough lady to have figured all that out already.”

“Good plan,” Trissiny agreed, nodding. “That’s Eserite practice, too, you know. If you’ve got an unspoken threat to hold over somebody, you only cheapen it by pointing it out.”

“Good to know,” he said wryly.

“Sounds about as straightforward as it went with the Dawn Council,” Toby reported. “I gained…some support, and I’m afraid I burned a few bridges in the process. But most importantly, the Bishop is on my side. I’m as certain as I reasonably can be that the cult will fall in line with the plan.”

“Good,” she said seriously. “I’m sorry if it got you in trouble with them, though, Toby.”

“Thanks,” he said with a soft smile, “but to be honest, the fault here is theirs, not yours or even mine. The Dawn Council’s entire method of dealing with everything is to bow to inevitability, after they’ve waited to be certain what it is. It was just a matter of making myself inevitable. They’ll bow. Some of them are not going to be happy about it, though. Future engagements with them may be… Well, not as good.”

“Man, it’d be nice if we could just convince everybody to do the sensible thing,” Gabriel complained. “Sometimes, though, you just gotta apply the stick instead of the carrot. If we can help with anything, Toby, we’ve got your back.”

“I appreciate it,” he said, smiling again. “But anyway! Before we move on to that, Trissiny, there’s something unexpected to deal with.”

“Well, of course there bloody is,” she said with a sigh. “I’m really starting to sympathize with Ravana. What this time?”

“It turns out,” Gabriel said, grinning, “that you have a visitor.”

“Me?”

“You,” Toby confirmed, already turning to head back toward the doors into the remainder of the suite.

She followed, alongside Gabriel, already frowning in thought. Who would be seeking her out here? Practically everybody she knew, she’d already talked with today. Herschel knew she was staying in this Manor over the winter break, but now that she thought about it, she hadn’t notified Ravana or her guards to let him in. One of her elvish relatives? Trissiny wouldn’t put it past Lanaera to be able to bully her way into a noble’s house, but she didn’t care for leaving her grove any more than any other Elder shaman did.

They only made it a few more paces before the mystery resolved itself, their guest emerging from a side parlor. She had no doubt heard the whole conversation; Trissiny’s visitor was, indeed, an elf. Just not any of the elves she would have expected.

Trissiny came to a stop, blinking in surprise. “Natchua?”

“Trissiny, good, you’re back,” the drow greeted her tersely. “I’m sorry to barge in on your vacation like this, especially when you’re obviously having a busy day, but I need your help.”

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16 – 24

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Finding herself already in the Embassy District, Trissiny opted to summon Arjen and ride the relatively short distance to the compound held by the Conclave of the Winds. This neighborhood, accustomed as it was to the presence of august personages from the world over, afforded her relative freedom from the gawking and pointing she usually got in public while wearing the silver armor that enabled her to walk into embassies and get unscheduled meetings with ranking personnel; even the police officer of whom she’d asked directions had been polite but not fawning, or even visibly impressed. There were also a good number of foreigners about, for obvious reasons, and so she was the subject of some whispering, but Trissiny could live with that. She was altogether more bothered by the cold. Having left the Svennish embassy around midmorning and found the day unexpectedly sunny for Tiraas, she had to dourly admit that this was probably as warm as it was going to get all day.

Embassies were at least easy to identify, even for one unfamiliar with the neighborhood, as they obligingly bedecked themselves in flags. The Conclave’s multicolored hexagon encircled by a wing-like glyph on a white field was displayed as prominently as any, enabling her to zero in on her target as soon as she was on the right street. The dragons had set up a towering flagpole to fly their colors notably higher than any of the others in the area, which was exactly the sort of petty posturing nobody was going to call them down for. Because they were dragons.

She rode Arjen past the guards at the open gate, neither of whom attempted to stop her, dismounting midway up the path to the palatial embassy proper and leaving him with a pat on his velvety nose to return to the divine plane as always. Again, she was not impeded—a paladin’s uniform opened many doors—and in fact, the two guards bracketing the embassy’s door came to attention, one opening the door for her.

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely.

“Ma’am,” the guard replied in a crisp tone.

She slowed, indulging her martial upbringing in casting a critical eye over the soldiers—which, to judge by their discipline, they were, rather than civil guards. The Conclave kept its troops in metal armor, lined with white fur, but in addition to sabers they carried battlestaves and had wands holstered. They were also, every one she’d seen so far, women, and notably more attractive than soldiers needed to be.

Dragons.

Trissiny repressed her instinctive antipathy. There was no suggestion any of these women were here against their will, which made it none of her business.

Inside, the sight of the embassy’s great hall caused her to stop and spend a heartbeat just taking in the view.

Apparently the Conclave had been hastily granted this compound by the Empire on the day of their very sudden appearance at the capital, and moved into the then-empty palace left behind when the Syrrinski delegation had relocated themselves to a smaller structure at a more trafficked intersection. However make-do the initial habitation had been, the Conclave had since had ample time to make the embassy their own.

They’d stripped the walls to reveal bare stone, covered the windows with heavy drapes, replaced what had probably been a marble floor with gray flagstones, knocked out the fluted columns which would’ve matched the embassy’s exterior to install heavy square pillars of fieldstone, and disabled all the fairy lamps. All the illumination now came from a selection of braziers and standing lamps, all holding fire rather than magical light, and at least some clearly augmented with smoky incense. The relative dimness served to accentuate the furnishings, which were a mismatched collection of carved luxury woods, pricey fabrics, gilt and silvered limbs, and intricate carpets. Everything was visibly expensive, most of it clearly antique, and absolutely nothing matched.

Evidently the draconic aesthetic was tasteless opulence against a starkly rustic backdrop.

No dragons were immediately in evidence, though there were more humans about than Trissiny had expected, including a servant tending to braziers and several individuals crossing the great hall at a businesslike gait with stacks of paperwork in hand. More soldiers were stationed about, rigidly at attention with a discipline she could not fault; all were female, and all remarkably pretty of face.

Where were they getting these women? How did they recruit them? The Sisterhood kept tabs on the Huntsmen’s eternal campaign to entice women into their ranks; surely someone would have noticed had dragons been doing the same. Trissiny had heard nothing to that effect, however.

“General Avelea! Welcome!”

From the large desk set up across from the entrance now approached a tall half-elven man, smiling broadly. Trissiny noted that the dragons also had classical sensibilities when it came to garbing their servants; in addition to the old-fashioned armor on the guards, most of the other personnel in the room wore sweeping robes, like wizards and clerics in old adventuring parties were often depicted. This fellow, though, was actually in a doublet and breeches, which was somehow even more anachronistic, but he had the lean frame to pull it off.

“Good morning,” she said. “I apologize for intruding on you without warning…”

“Not at all, not at all,” the steward hastily reassured her. “I can only imagine how unforgiving a paladin’s schedule must be. It is an honor to have you in our embassy, General! What can the Conclave of the Winds do for you?”

“Actually,” she said mentally preparing herself for an argument, “I need to speak with Zanzayed the Blue.”

“Of course, General,” he said, to her surprise. Snapping his fingers, he turned to point at another young man still waiting behind the desk. “Ivan, notify Lord Zanzayed he has a visitor. If you would, General Avelea,” he said, turning back to her with a bow while the youth dashed off toward one of the room’s curving staircases, “please make yourself comfortable here. I will have refreshments brought.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said hastily. “I don’t mean to take up any more of your time than I must.”

“Please, General, the hospitality of the Conclave couldn’t bear to have you mistreated under our roof. At least something to ward off the chill of the day?”

He snapped his fingers again, beckoning, and a new figure approached from behind the desk—in fact, from a door behind it obscured by a curtain, hence why she had not noticed them before. This was a woman—young, as pretty as any of the guards, and considerably more underdressed, to the point the tray of steaming mugs she carried seemed like an imminent threat to her expansive cleavage. She glided forward with surprising grace considering her burden and executed a deep curtsy, smiling up through her thick lashes in an openly flirtatious manner.

Apparently they didn’t entertain many Avenists here.

Trissiny was spared having to come up with a polite response to this by the sharp sound of a battlestaff being thunked twice against the stone floor, followed by the voice of one of the soldiers ringing through the great hall.

“Lord Ampophrenon the Gold!”

Instantly every human in the room knelt and lowered their heads, including the serving girl, still holding up her tray, leaving Trissiny standing alone.

“Please, rise,” pleaded a deep baritone from above, and she turned to spot the tall humanoid form of the dragon in his famous golden armor descending the stairs, just in time to catch his embarrassed-looking wave as he urged everyone back to their feet.

Interesting. Then did the other dragons insist on this obeisance that Ampophrenon did not care for, or perhaps did he just like to put on a show of modesty while also soaking up the reverence? The latter was a cynical thought, but consistent with the reputation of dragons. Trissiny was deliberately trying to get in the habit of teasing out social and political currents like this, though so far the effort had mostly just revealed how little frame of reference she had for it.

Ampophrenon’s featureless golden eyes had settled right on her, and he descended the stairs in a rapid glide, quickly crossing the floor in a few long strides. “General Avelea, welcome to our embassy. It is an honor to finally meet you!”

“Likewise, Lord Ampophrenon,” she answered, bowing. To her surprise, he bowed back as soon as he was close enough, one casual gesture sending both the steward and the waitress backing away from them.

“I feel I still owe you an apology for my absence at Ninkabi. It is shameful that none of our Conclave learned of the attack in time to assist in the defense—for me, in particular.”

“As suddenly as it happened, I hardly think anyone who wasn’t there can be blamed,” she demurred. “The paladins only made it in time because Xyraadi came to find us.”

“Ah, yes, the Sisterhood’s old khelminash ally,” the dragon said, his expression growing intent. “These times grow more interesting with each passing day. I am given to understand that you have struck up a friendship with none other than Vadrieny the Ravager?”

Ah, yes; this particular dragon had a history with her, didn’t he?

“I have,” Trissiny stated, holding his gaze firmly. “And she is as good a friend as any I’ve ever had. I’m not sure how much you’re aware of Vadrieny’s situation, Lord Ampophrenon, but having one’s entire history and identity erased changes a person. She has little resemblance to the Vadrieny of history. I suspect you would scarcely recognize her.”

“That is a relief to hear,” he said, nodding. “Especially after this morning.” Trissiny blinked in surprise; Teal and therefore Vadrieny had been with her all morning, until they’d dropped her off outside the Svennish embassy less than an hour ago. What could they have possibly done? Fortunately Ampophrenon continued. “The papers are full of the account of her terrorizing a city street yesterday, here in Tiraas.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, frowning in annoyance. “Well, I haven’t seen the papers, but I personally helped clean up the aftermath of that. A pair of thieves attempted to abduct her pet dog. There was some incidental property damage, for which the Falconers are of course being financially responsible, but Vadrieny stopped the criminals. Without killing them, which to be quite frank was more restrained than I might have been.”

“I’m very pleased to learn that,” the dragon said with a smile, “and most especially to have a firsthand account. A drawback of the modern proliferation of information is that relatively little of it seems accurate. The picture painted by the newspapers has been…rather more dramatic.”

“Oh?”

“For heaven’s sake, Puff, can’t you get your own visitors?”

Belatedly, the sergeant at arms thunked her staff twice on the floor. “Lord Zanzayed the Blue!”

“Yes, yes, everybody calm down. As you were,” Zanzayed said impatiently, causing the various dragonsworn in the room to abort their descents, only a few of them having made it to a full kneel, and straighten back up. He crossed the room from the staircase at a rapid glide that caused his fancifully embroidered robes to fan behind him like the train of a peacock, grinning broadly and spreading his hands in welcome. “Trissiny! What a delight to see you again! You look much better as a blonde. What brings you to my humble abode?”

“Humble?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “Actually, never mind that. Hello again, Zanzayed, I’m sorry I haven’t found time to visit before. The truth is, I need to ask you for a favor.”

“Yep, this is what it’s like to have family,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You never see them unless they want something.”

“Right,” Trissiny retorted, “so should I assume that since you haven’t visited me either, it’s only because I have nothing you want?”

The blue dragon burst out laughing. “Now that’s the way to do it! That’s perfect, Triss, you’ve got your mother’s wit, plus the knack for not being such a bitch about it. I can see the benefit of Arachne’s training! All right, all right, I do like to josh but seriously, I don’t mind at all doing you a solid. Whatcha need?”

“It’s a pretty prosaic thing to ask of a dragon, sorry,” she apologized, “but I need to get to the First Legion headquarters in northern Viridill, gather up some people, and get back here to Tiraas, as quickly as it can be arranged. Only teleportation will be fast enough to suffice.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” he said, unimpressed. “I do respect the sheer gumption, asking a dragon to be your personal taxi service.”

“Well, if you’re busy, I certainly understand,” Trissiny said with a deliberately false smile. “I was in the neighborhood, is all. I can head down to the Wizards’ Guild and spend the Sisterhood’s credit—”

“Now, now, I didn’t say no, did I?” he interjected.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the least dignified thing you’ve done lately,” Ampophrenon agreed. “In fact, General Avelea, if you intend to visit your adventurer legion, I wonder if I might prevail upon you to come along? I’m certain Zanzayed doesn’t mind doing such a minor favor, after all,” he added pointedly to the blue. “It’s not as if he has anything more important to do.”

“You should stop helping before I’m forced to refuse on principle,” Zanzayed retorted. “Long as this one restrains his urge to henpeck, Trissiny, sure, I’d be glad to give you a lift. I did the same for Arachne not long ago, and at least you’re polite.”

Trissiny found herself hesitating, glancing rapidly between them. Ampophrenon’s presence had not been part of her plan. Zanzayed’s insistence on coming along, despite his expected complaining, had borne out her theory: the Conclave would very much like to have a look at the First Legion, or specifically, one individual in it. More than a few commentators had suggested it was formed at least partly due to the actions of Khadizroth the Green, in whom they remained deeply interested. Hence her intention to make Zanzayed the first point of contact between them, under her own supervision; he was noted to be the least versed in the art of political maneuvering, mostly because he wasn’t known to care about much of anything beyond his own immediate interests.

Ampophrenon the Gold was a different matter entirely.

But could she refuse his presence without overplaying her hand? And would that even create a problem if she did? Moments like this made Trissiny keenly conscious of just how much she still had to learn about this kind of maneuvering. And it had all been going so well before Ampophrenon involved himself…

“Actually,” she said slowly, “if you’re interested in seeing it, Lord Ampophrenon, I’d be glad of your presence. Captain Locke is trying to resuscitate a dead tradition; I’d love to hear the observations of one who was an expert in adventurer strategy when it was an active force.”

“The honor would be mine, General,” the gold dragon assured her with a courtly bow. “I shall be only too glad to be of service, in light of my failure to do so at the Battle of Ninkabi. I’m sure Zanzayed doesn’t mind one extra passenger.”

“Well, you could stand to lose a few pounds, but we’ll make do,” Zanzayed snipped, holding his arms wide and calling up a rising sparkle of visible arcane magic that Trissiny knew for a fact was entirely unnecessary for a wizard of his skill. He’d even modulated the characteristically unpleasant buzz of the arcane to a three-tone harmony. “Stand clear, everyone!”

Well, she reflected as the three of them disappeared in a gratuitous flash, you couldn’t win them all.


“It’s just such an absolute delight to see you again, Gabriel!” Lady Gwenfaer nattered on. “Let me get you something. Tea? I have some lovely chocolates from Glassiere, I’ve just been waiting for someone to come along worth sharing them with. Oh, please, do make yourself comfortable! Sit anywhere you like. And get out of that heavy coat! I do so want you to feel relaxed here.”

He felt anything but relaxed here, and the fact that she both knew it and knew exactly why only fed his tension. Gabriel deliberately kept his posture calmly and as un-tensed as he could make it, cultivating a mask of aloofness which did not even try to suppress the suspicion in his eyes. Obviously, he did not take off his coat.

As with the previous time she had entertained him, Gwenfaer met him in her private chambers, an inner sanctum deep inside the underground temple complex beneath Imperial Square. It was actually ironic and a fine example of the cult’s prized duality; the innermost chambers were obviously sacred spaces, arranged for prayer and religious ceremonies, and then past the final door was this cozy little apartment, in which the mortal leader of the Vidian faith was now puttering about a small kitchen, making tea.

Also as before, she herself was wearing a robe that was clearly designed to resemble a disheveled housecoat, despite the immaculate condition of its silken skirt and wide sleeves. It revealed an excessive amount of pale cleavage and in fact seemed perpetually on the verge of sliding off her shoulders, and yet remained firmly fixed in place, exactly where she wanted it. Gabriel himself was a bit more worldly now than on their previous encounter, enough at least to respect the artifice that went into such a garment. As well as the way her blonde hair evoked the tousled aspect of just having slid out of bed, and yet was glossy and flowed down her back like the carved mane of a marble sculpture. And while he still knew very little about cosmetics, he knew that his own failure to spot them didn’t mean they weren’t there—and that nobody just woke up with their lips or eyelids colored that way.

While the tea kettle was heating, she came bustling back carrying a plate on which fancy-looking chocolates were artfully arranged, and Gabriel did not miss the unnatural way she held it—close to waist level, the better to accentuate her bust, in a posture absolutely no one used for transporting food.

“Please, Gabriel, do sit down,” Gwenfaer chided gently. “Come, I think you’ll enjoy these.”

“I hear you’ve been making trouble for the Archpope,” he said, not moving to do any of what she suggested. “To the point he’s called poor Bishop Raskin down on the carpet a few times. From what people tell me, it’s starting to seem like you’ve set the Brethren to impeding Church activities just for the hell of it. Or maybe just to see how much you can get away with?”

She sighed with almost childlike peevishness, making a little pout which belonged on someone half her age at the absolute most. It was downright creepy how well the woman pulled it off. Shaking her head, Gwenfaer bent to set the plate of chocolates on the low table between her couches, deliberately positioning herself so that the motion gave Gabriel a view straight down to her waist.

He immediately averted his eyes, then clenched them slightly in annoyance. A better action would have been to look, without allowing his expression to be altered in the slightest. All this flirting was blatantly a power play, not anything sincerely romantic, and he’d just ceded her at least a measure of that power. It wasn’t as if he needed a reminder that he was way out of his depth, trying to play these games with this woman.

“Really, right to politics?” she asked in coquettish disappointment, straightening back up and giving no indication she was even aware her posture had had an effect on him—which, somehow, only emphasized how in control she was. “Honestly, Gabriel, it’s not that I mind, but there’s a reason civilized people try to soften up such talk with pleasant little amenities.”

“Yes, thank you for showing me the amenities, they’re magnificent as always,” he said sarcastically, and the smile of amusement she gave him at that was the first expression he’d ever seen on her face that looked genuine. “The curious thing about it is apparently you’re the reason there’s an Archpope Justinian at all. The way I heard it, when the last one retired, you were one of the leading contenders for the position until you nominated him. So, what gives? Do you back Justinian or not?”

Gwenfaer sighed and gave him an indulgent smile, looking up through her eyelashes. “Would you please relax? Whatever’s set you on the warpath, I’m sure between us we can settle on a strategy to deal with it. Come, have a seat.” She patted the spot next to herself invitingly, and with her other hand picked up a chocolate, holding it out as if she intended to feed him with her fingers.

Gabriel held her gaze for a moment, then deliberately drew the gnarled black wand from within his coat. It extended to full scythe form in his grasp and he planted the butt against the floor, the impact muffled by her thick layers of carpet.

Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the divine weapon and then back to him, looking not the least bit perturbed. Mildly inquisitive, at most.

“I would appreciate your help with something, Lady Gwenfaer,” he stated. “Well, several things, in fact.”

“Of course, I’m—”

“To begin with, yourself. I am in a completely intractable position with regard to you. We need to resolve that before moving on to more pressing matters.”

“Why, Gabriel,” she said in wide-eyed concern, “whatever have I done to impede you?”

“That,” he said, pointing at her. “You have to be aware that I’m not here to do run-of-the-mill Vidian stuff. Vidius has told me in so many words I’m here to straighten out the cult, and clean out some of the rot. The only reason I haven’t so far is I am still working to get a sense of who’s who and what’s what, and the fact that this place is a constantly-writhing nest of snakes at the best of times does not help. I’d like nothing more than to count on your help, Lady Gwenfaer. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to direct me.”

“It goes without saying, Gabriel,” she said sweetly, making sure to gaze up through her lashes to emphasize the double meaning. “Anything I can do for you, you need only ask.”

“And that’s why it’s such a problem,” he said with open irritation, “that you keep working so hard to make yourself completely impossible to trust.”

He’d more than half expected her to make another playfully flirtatious comment in response, but instead, she carefully set the chocolate back down on the plate and folded her hands in her lap.

“Are you under the impression, Gabriel, that I’ve been…unusually disingenuous toward you?”

“In point of fact, no,” he said, drawing his eyebrows together in a quizzical expression. “I actually asked Tarvadegh. He insisted you treat everyone the same way. Also, he seemed exhausted just by the memory of being in a room with you.”

“Val, you gossipy fishwife,” she huffed, and once again, the real amusement in her tone seemed like an unaccustomed flash of genuine emotion through her constant facade. Of course, Gabriel couldn’t afford to trust that, either. “That observation is quite apt, Gabriel. The Doctrine of Masks may be something you are learning to use, but to me? It is a way not merely of acting, but of being.”

And just like that, her entire aspect changed. She leaned back against the rear of the couch, stretching both arms across it, and while that pose could have been interpreted as sexy, her expression was even and sharp, eyes fixed on him as if analyzing him like a specimen under a magnifier.

“Does this make you feel more at ease?” Gwenfaer inquired, and while her voice was no less throaty, the subtleties of her inflection were knowing and detached, nothing at all like her little-girl coyness of before.

“Yes, thank you, that’s a start.”

Gabriel finally stepped forward around the other couch and seated himself directly opposite her. Still holding his eyes, she raised one eyebrow.

“I’m not sure why. Surely, you have to be aware that I am no different, and definitely no less in control of how you perceive me.”

“Sure, but nothing was ever gonna change that.” He kept one hand on the haft of the scythe, resting its butt on the floor between the couch and table. “It would be pretty stupid on my part to let my guard down with anyone in this place, don’t you think? But at least as long as you’re not acting like a showgirl, I can at least feel like you’re taking this seriously. Trust is earned, and that takes time. Meet me halfway, and it’s only fair I give you a chance. Right?”

“You make a peculiar kind of sense,” she said with a knowing little smile. “Well then, if I have earned a measure of your tolerance, you were asking about Justinian, yes? I wonder what’s set you after him suddenly.”

“I wonder where you stand with him,” Gabriel shot back. “You as good as put him where he is, but now you seem to be trying to hamper him?”

“That’s not so contradictory as you make it sound. Yes, I played my role in making him Archpope. At the time, Gabriel, I was angling to rise through the ranks, and at a crossroads where I could have pursued the office of Archpope for myself, or the leadership of the Brethren. In that situation? My decision was the strategic one. I avoided a pitched power struggle between the other Bishops, and by positioning myself such that it seemed to my fellow Vidians the papacy had been mine to give away, I leveraged myself into…” She made a languid gesture with one hand. “Well, where you see me now.”

“I see you now, but not so much what you’re doing. Why help Justinian become Archpope if you dislike him so much? Was the power that important to you?”

“I can’t honestly say whether it would have been,” she said, leaning forward and folding her hands in her lap again. Gwenfaer’s eyes narrowed, still fixed on his own in an expression of open displeasure. “Though I lean toward the belief that had I understood Justinian better, I would have fought him. The matter at hand is that I had no idea what kind of creature I was climbing into bed with. You don’t know what it was like, then, Gabriel; this was before you even discovered girls, I think. Justinian Darnay was the Izarite Bishop, which in and of itself was a courtesy post nobody took seriously, least of all the Izarites. He was so likable, such a friendly non-entity. Handsome and slightly interesting due to having done some actual adventuring, during what must surely have been the last time anyone did that and was willing to admit to it. Until this year, of course. Basically, he was a living portrait of the ultimate bland, no-name, nothing politician. I’m not by far the only one who thought Justinian’s papacy would be a serene, steady time in which we could all carry on with our various maneuvering under the nose of everyone’s favorite mild-mannered uncle.”

There was silence for a moment. Gwenfaer’s eyes cut to the side, and she worked her jaw once as if chewing her tongue.

“Wow,” Gabriel said at last. “That did not go the way you expected, huh?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I respect his maneuvering tremendously,” she acknowledged, focusing back on his face. “It was an utterly brilliant ploy. Nobody knew exactly what we were putting in power when we voted him there. And then he was in place, and slowly began putting things in order the way he liked them. The Church was just…interfaith cooperation, before he came along. Now the thing is an actual religious institution in its own right. Its cathedrals were spaces for any Pantheon cult to use, but not only do they have unique Church services instead, now, he’s got chapels in every town on the frontier and working into older cities across the Empire and beyond. And with its own private guard force, research projects, countless methods of exerting political influence…” She shook her head, looking equal parts impressed and angry, and causing Gabriel to marvel at the control she had over her expression. “And all because the Bishops were so certain we’d just installed a hapless figurehead under whom we could go about business as usual. Can you imagine, playing harmless at that level for that long, and using it to attain ultimate power? I don’t think I could have pulled that off.”

Lady Gwenfaer paused, letting the silence hang heavily for a moment before continuing.

“And that, I hope, explains the apparent contradiction to you, Gabriel. I am, in large part, responsible for Justinian being where he is. And his ambitions have grown to the point where I deem it no less than my obligation to impede him. I held aloof for years because I couldn’t discern any end goal behind his maneuvering. I still can’t, but whatever else he is doing, he is centralizing power and authority under the papacy to a degree which for very good reason has not existed since Sipasian’s day. Anyway,” she added in a deliberately more glib tone, once again lounging back against the couch. “That’s why I have made it a point lately to interfere with him. I gather you would not have come here to sound me out unless something beyond the usual run of Church politics had moved you. So I’ll ask again, Gabriel: why are you suddenly so concerned with Justinian?”

He studied her thoughtfully for a moment before replying. She just gazed back, a vision of patience.

“Vesk sent us on a quest this summer,” he said at last. “All three paladins.”

“Vesk did? That sounds annoying.”

“You truly cannot imagine,” he agreed. “I think he had multiple goals, and I suspect I don’t know the half of them. But at least one was to ensure we learned that Justinian has somehow gotten access to ancient machinery of the Elder Gods that was involved in their final destruction, and the Pantheon’s creation. And that he has been using it to try to affect the gods themselves.”

Gwenfaer’s expression did not change by a hair, but very slowly, she straightened up until she was sitting as rigidly upright as a soldier.

“You are certain of this?” Her voice was quiet, and devoid of apparent emotion.

He nodded. “I’ve seen the evidence, incredible as it is. There are also indications, though they’re only circumstantial or you would have been hearing about it already, that he had a hand in what happened to Ninkabi. And the chaos event in Veilgrad before that. In addition to his political ambitions, Justinian is messing with magic nobody needs to touch, and seems to be very interested in how godhood works. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out for you what that equation adds up to.”

She nodded mutely.

“So, yes, we are in agreement,” Gabriel continued. “Justinian needs to go. And I am here, now, because while politics are definitely not my strong suit, Trissiny is heading up an attack on that front and needs our help.”

“Ah, Trissiny,” Gwenfaer said with a vulpine smile. “I like that one. Laressa’s knack for political theater, Sharai’s capacity to smite big old honking demon lords, and the ruthlessness to waterboard aristocrats in public. And still just finding her stride! She’ll go down as one of Avei’s finest, mark my words. What is she up to now?”

“I’m sure you already know the Thieves’ Guild cut ties with the Church in protest after Ninkabi. Bishop Darling has been serving as their interfaith conduit directly with the other cults, rather than going through the Church’s organization.”

“Ah, yes, poor Antonio,” she said solicitously. “He’s been running himself quite ragged.”

“As of today,” Gabriel said, watching her closely, “the Sisterhood of Avei is going to join the Guild in solidarity. Justinian has been refusing to confirm their Bishop candidates, so the High Commander will be appointing one to fill the role regardless, and will also withdraw from the Church. The Avenists have a lot more credibility and influence than the Eserites; this alone may be enough to get the ball rolling with the other cults. But to make it a definitive push, they need the other two Trinity cults to join them.”

For a moment, Gwenfaer just stared at him with her eyes slightly narrowed. Then, slowly, a smile blossomed across her face, a grin that by the second grew wider as it grew more overtly malicious.

“Oh,” she breathed, pausing to lick her lips once in a truly predatory gesture, “I like it.”

This time, he fully believed her.

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16 – 23

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The winter wind carried a particularly bitter chill just after dawn, when the sun was only barely up, not that it slowed them down. Ingvar naturally kept an eye on the trainees, but what they lacked in acquired skill they made up for in sheer grit, which only made sense given where they’d come from.

It was a sizable group, for what amounted to a standard patrol party, but it wasn’t as if the woods of western Tiraan Province needed much patrolling; the greater part of the purpose in being out was to help the newest Shadow Hunters get accustomed to woodcraft. He had brought November, a spirit wolf, two pixie companions, and three of the Harpies who were just along for the experience. Of them, little Mittsin, who at thirteen was the youngest of the entire group to be treated as an apprentice rather than one of the children, was by far the most intent and seriousness. Ingvar could relate, remembering well what it was like being that age and having so much to prove. The others, a woman in her late twenties and one who had to be pushing fifty, both tended to break into snickers any time they glanced at one of the fairies or the wolf.

It was the names, of course. Ingvar couldn’t begrudge them having a chuckle at Zap and Flicker; the pixies preferred simple, evocative names like that, and rather than being offended seemed pleased when humans found amusement in it. Now, though, he was starting to wonder if giving their wolf companions Stalweiss honor names had been a good idea; only people raised in the traditions of the Stalrange would even be able to interpret them, but he would have expected any such to take them seriously. There was a reason such names were seldom translated for the benefit of outsiders—exactly the same reason the Empire had made sure Heshenaad was remembered by the Tanglish version Horsebutt, where he was remembered at all. So now here he was, in the woods with a cherished packmate and two women who both knew that Nirtaath literally meant “nice bitch” and couldn’t seem to stop giggling about it.

“Really?” November demanded sharply, turning to give them a flat look at the latest round of snickers. Both of them quieted, having the grace to look abashed. Ingvar tried to take a gentler tone with these women, given what they’d been through, but he couldn’t deny that November’s razor tongue had its uses. Mittsin gave them a matching look of disapproval, which fortunately for her they weren’t positioned to see.

“Sorry,” Hilden muttered. Illia nodded agreement, keeping her mouth shut.

“I don’t get it,” Flicker whispered loudly, drifting over by Ingvar. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing is funny,” November stated, turning back around, “and some people should keep that in mind.”

“This is one of those things,” Zap added.

“Ohhh.” Flicker bobbed once in midair, chiming in acknowledgment. “Got it.” The pixies in general were remarkably sanguine about social dynamics which they recognized their failure to understand, once they recognized one of those was going on.

Ingvar cleared his throat, pointing off to the group’s right. “Look there, in that clear area between the trees. What do you see upon the snow?”

“Animal tracks,” Mittsin answered quickly, her voice slightly muffled by the scarf wound over the lower part of her face. She and the other two Harpies trudged forward through the snow to get a closer look, stopping only when Ingvar held out an arm to forestall them. Both pixies floated closer; Nirtaath glanced in that direction, then turned to survey the nearby woods, her ears pricked.

“Specifically, a story,” said Ingvar. “That’s one of the best things about tracking, in my opinion. It’s far more than recognizing when something has passed this way. Once you know how to read them, the signs of the wild are as clear as text on a page. Can any of you tell what this one says?”

“They just…end, suddenly, up there,” Illia answered, pointing. “Look, it’s like a bit splash.”

“But there are no tracks leading away,” Hilden added. “Did the animal just start flying?”

“It did indeed,” Ingvar said gravely, “but not on purpose. Those are a hare’s tracks. Look, follow the progression of events. It starts out from within those bushes, see? Hopping this way and that, in no great hurry, likely foraging. But then, suddenly, the tracks are deeper and much farther apart; it suddenly started running.”

“Something scared it,” said Mittsin.

“Exactly,” he said with an approving nod. “Look how it zigzags; the hare was dodging back and forth, trying to evade something.”

“I don’t see any other tracks, though,” said Illia.

“But you see the splash, as you called it. That disturbance is where the last struggle happened. Look at those shallow, wedge-shaped marks to either side of the crater. What do you think of that?”

They were silent, all three squinting at the spot in puzzlement.

“Wings!” Mittsin said suddenly.

“Wings,” Ingvar agreed, grinning. “Looks like a hawk; none of the owls that live around here are big enough to eat a hare. That one’s journey ended right on that spot.”

“Aw. Now I feel bad for the bunny,” Flicker chimed.

“All life exists by consuming other life,” Ingvar explained, more for the benefit of the three apprentices than the pixie. “We hunt to sustain ourselves; so do hawks, and wolves, and every predator. Animals exist within the balance and are intrinsically part of it. It’s only humans who learn to hunt, consume and destroy without respecting what they take, and what they take it from. Our duty as guardians of the wild is to understand that balance, so that was can protect it. We kill, but with respect, and gratitude.”

Suddenly Nirtaath growled softly, and he turned to follow her gaze. She was staring through the trees in the other direction from the hare’s tracks, ears forward.

“What’s the matter?” November murmured, kneeling beside her.

Ingvar didn’t speak, just following the wolf’s gaze and scanning for signs of anything amiss. Those who had undergone the fey transformation, human and wolk alike, had gained an instinctive understanding of one another’s communication. Nirtaath obviously didn’t speak Tanglish and it was debatable how much actual language she grasped, but she picked up on intent very well. He and November could read her lupine signals just as clearly; something was amiss in that direction, something she did not expect to find in this forest, but not something that alarmed her.

“Is…is something wrong?” Hilden asked.

All three of the other women gasped when the light swelled around November and she changed, standing beside Nirtaath in the form of a golden-coated spirit wolf with white wingmarks gleaming at her shoulders. She lifted her head, scenting the air for a moment, then shifted back.

“I smell magic,” she reported. “Fairy; not hostile, but it doesn’t belong here. And something else, underneath it, almost wiped away. A scent I don’t recognize. Almost…reptilian?”

“Zap, Flicker,” Ingvar said. “What do you think?”

Both pixies fluttered forward, drifting back and forth among the trees in that direction. Zap’s blue-white glow could be difficult to spot against the snow, but Flicker was a fiery orange and easy to follow. She was the first to come back, bouncing in midair in excitement.

“Wind magic!” she reported. “Something made a strong breeze blow through here last night. Right through here. Definitely magical, it wasn’t part of the normal air.”

“Hey, yeah!” Zap chimed, shooting back to join them. “I think it was covering tracks!”

“He’s right,” said November, shuffling forward in a crouch. “Look, the snow here’s more windblown. In a straight path through the trees, there. Something used a fae wind spell to wipe tracks and blow away most of their scent.”

“What kind of fairy would do that?” Illia asked nervously.

“I don’t know of any,” Ingvar mused, staring through the trees with a frown. “The few fairies that bother to cover their tracks either obliterate them with no trace or just use mental magic to deflect attention. This is more likely to be a witch.”

“Elves?” Mittsin asked.

“If an elvish shaman didn’t want their tracks to be spotted, we wouldn’t have spotted them.”

“It was more than a shaman,” November added. “Look how wide the area covered is. Could be…ten people walking abreast, and no telling how many deep.”

“Hm.” Ingvar looked back at his three charges, rapidly thinking. All three met his gaze and matching looks of stubbornness fell across their features; he decided not to bother trying to send them away. This was no time or place for an argument, and anyway, they had to learn sometime. “Neither November nor Nirtaath smelled a threat. Still, per our arrangement with the Duchess, we are responsible for these forests and this is something we need to investigate. Illia, Mittsin, Hilden, you three stay behind us and keep a sharp eye out. Flicker, would you please head back to the lodge and let Aspen and the others know we found something?”

“You got it!” the fire pixie chimed, swooping around him once and then shooting off through the trees, back the way they had come.

Ingvar rested a hand on Nirtaath’s back. “Let’s go see who our visitors are.”

“So, can…can you smell hostility?” Hilden asked as they proceeded slowly after the obscured tracks, Nirtaath at the head of the group with her nose to the ground.

“It’s debatable whether ordinary canines can pick up on things like that,” Ingvar replied, eyes ahead. “Our wolf blessing is fae in nature, and fae magic is excellent for discerning emotional states. Let’s proceed quietly, now, we don’t know who we’re approaching.”

“It goes right for that big ridge,” November said, pointing. “Look how rocky it is; do you think they could have climbed it? Or turned aside?”

“Depends on who it is,” he murmured.

Nirtaath growled very softly, but kept going, and her ears remained up. Ingvar patted her fur once again, continuing to creep through the snow.

“Oh,” Hilden whispered, peeking over November’s shoulder. “It’s a cave.”

“So it is,” Ingvar agreed softly. “Big one, too. All right, you three, remember never to do what I’m about to when you’re first out on your own. A cave in the winter more often than not means a sleeping bear. Stop here, stay alert, and if I shout to run, you run, straight back to the lodge. Look after your own survival first; I can take care of mine.”

He left them, trusting November and Nirtaath to keep them calm despite how alarming that last instruction must have been, creeping forward until he passed gingerly below the rocky overhang into the deep depression beneath the ridge.

At first, Ingvar’s eyes could discern nothing, accustomed as they were to the white landscape outside under gray dawn light. Then Zap floated up by his shoulder, casting a dim but helpful bluish illumination into the underground space.

The cave was much bigger than he would have expected, broad and so deep there was not even a hint of the back visible, but that was not what commanded Ingvar’s attention. In the pixie’s glow, hundreds of tightly-packed red eyes glowed back, all staring right at him.


At least Kheshiri got to disguise herself. Natchua would have preferred the comfort of a disguise charm, given how much attention she drew even at this pre-breakfast hour of the morning. There was only one resident drow in Veilgrad and she had been a well-known figure even before everybody wanted to hear her opinion of the new Elven Confederacy. Unfortunately, making herself known was the point of this excursion. She just had to endure the cheerful attention of passersby who weren’t the people she wanted to encounter.

“Nothing?” she grumbled aloud as the two of them paced through a still-sleepy residential street, where for once nobody was around to approach her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think these jackasses didn’t want attention.”

“Well, aside from the relative likelihood of finding traces in any given disused warehouse or empty lot,” Kheshiri said reasonably, “the prospects of finding them in one of those at all is a coin toss. The odds are not in our favor, mistress, not taking this approach. To be really thorough we’d need to investigate influential people with whom they might have ingratiated themselves. That’s a Wreath standard, and usually preferable to skulking in squalor, for a whole host of reasons.”

“I don’t fucking have time for that,” Natchua grumbled, tapping the thick folder she carried against her thigh. “Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got a reasonable chance of finding them no matter what; the idea is make it easy for them to find me, the way Mogul seems obsessed with doing. You really think they’ve wormed their way into Veilgrad society?”

“You have to remember, mistress, the warlocks who know dangerous secrets are only a fraction of the Black Wreath, by the numbers. They’re the only fraction that’s important, but for every one of them there are a hundred cretins who’ve just learned a secret handshake so they can get off on how naughty they’re being, dabbling in Elilial’s business. Mostly that’s just the true Wreath’s recruitment pool, but it does provide them with connections to hide in places with indoor plumbing, when they need to. There are bound to be at least a handful in a city the size of Veilgrad.”

“Huh,” Natchua grunted. “After Ninkabi I bet they’ll be relaxing their recruitment standards.”

“They do need to replenish their numbers,” the disguised succubus agreed. “But they may actually find that harder after the truce. Elilial’s no longer as eeeeevil. That takes away a lot of the appeal.”

“I really want to insist that nobody’s that stupid,” she said with a sigh. “But we know the truth, don’t we.”

Kheshiri grinned maliciously. “Everybody’s that stupid, mistress.”

“I’d like to think I’m not. Hopefully, most of my personal friends and acquaintances aren’t.”

“Actually, you’ve got yourself a pretty good group, yeah. But statistically everybody.”

“Oh, Kheshiri, ever the pessimist.”

“Finally!” Natchua exclaimed, stopping mid-stride and turning to face the man who’d suddenly spoken from right behind them. “You took your damn time. Is this it, today? Oh, don’t tell me, everybody’s still at breakfast.”

“Now, now, the Black Wreath aren’t stray dogs,” Embras Mogul informed her, stuffing his hands into his pockets and slouching indolently against somebody’s front gate. “You’re generally not gonna get results with a ‘come hither’ as pitifully obvious as this one. If this is your idea of a trap, Natchua, I’m not impressed. And are you aware who this succubus is, exactly?”

“What succubus?” Kheshiri asked innocently. “I am a pure maiden from a good family of—”

“Don’t bother,” he said curtly. “As tempted as I am to just let you try to control this creature and suffer the consequences—”

“I’m not gonna take any sass on the subject of Kheshiri from the jackass who went and let her out of her bottle in the first place,” Natchua interrupted. “And for what, to try to cause trouble for some rando Eserite? Shit like this is why nobody takes you seriously when you start ranting about how the Wreath actually protects the world. Now listen up, I’ve already wasted enough time on your lollygagging today.”

“I feel I should remind you,” he said with a brittle grin, “that you should always worry less about the Wreath you see than the many you do not. Whatever you planned to spring today, Natchua my dear, I highly suggest—”

“Yes, all right, shut up.” Natchua calmly tossed the folder at him; by simple reflex alone, he caught it, his grin disappearing. “You’ll note I added colored tabs to the pages. The green ones are fairies and the black ones possible chaos events; I recommend you steer clear of those, or at least approach with care if you won’t take my word for it. The orange ones are infernal, that’s what I want you to focus on. If you get done with those, maybe have a look at the black tabs; undead problems aren’t exactly your purview, but if there’s one thing infernomancy is good for it’s breaking shit and you usually can’t go wrong just destroying zombies.”

“I beg your god damned pardon,” he said, clearly affronted.

“Every entry has a rough map and a serviceable description. Have a look at the kraagthshnorik entombed up in the hills,” Natchua advised. “It’s been there at least a couple hundred years and might hibernate forever, but being asleep it’s an easy target. It’s a place to start, anyway. The hedge warlock who’s camped out by the northern lumber camp probably just needs a scare put into him; I’d appreciate it if you approach that circle of imp summoners in the city with more care. They’re stupid teenagers and probably just gonna kill themselves, but they all have rich parents and I don’t need you stirring up the whole city. I was just going to collect evidence on them and turn it over to the Empire.”

“Are…are you… Are you giving me homework?” Mogul demanded incredulously.

“You Elilinists always make such noise about your mandate to protect the world from demons, right? Well, I went and found a bunch of demons for you. There they are, go nuts.”

“Listen here, you preposterous knife-eared wench,” he hissed, his usual facade of conviviality fading away, “the Black Wreath are not your fucking lackeys.”

“Here’s how it is, Mogul,” Natchua stated while Kheshiri grinned in insane delight. “I don’t know what you’re up to around here except that what you’ve told me you’re up to is a load of nonsense. And you know what? I officially don’t give a shit. I have things to do and no more time for your hogwash. The next time you want my attention, you can come to the Manor and knock like a civilized person. As long as you’re not bringing me hostility I will guarantee you safe passage. But if you want my attention, you’ll bring proof that you’ve done something to help protect Veilgrad or you will be directed to fuck right off. If you’re going to hang around my city, you will make yourself useful. That is all.”

“Now, you listen—”

Rather than listening, however, she snapped her fingers and shadow-jumped both of them away, cutting off Kheshiri’s howl of delighted laughter and leaving him glaring at empty space, holding the folder of local threat assessments.


Breakfast and the dining room of Madouri Manor was a cheerful affair reminiscent of the cafeteria at the University, despite its opulent surroundings, mostly due to the familiar company.

“I really wouldn’t want to put you out,” Toby assured Teal. “It’s fine, all three of us have mounts!”

“Toby, for heaven’s sake,” Teal replied in exasperation, “it is freezing out there and it’ll take you an hour to get to Tiraas on horseback. Let us give you a ride.”

“But weren’t you going to teach Shaeine to drive later? I mean, a big multi-seater coach can’t be the best vehicle for that…”

“I would like to think I thrive in extremely minor adversity,” Shaeine said primly.

“Is this that thing again?” Fross asked, floating over Toby’s plate. “The one where you’re so determined to take care of everybody you won’t let us do the same? I thought we talked about this.”

“Shame Raolo’s spending the winter break at his grove,” Iris added. “Raolo can always make him behave.”

“Hey, that’s a point!” cackled Ruda. “Maybe we should get him! Is there a scrolltower near his folks’ place?”

“Please don’t interrupt Raolo’s vacation,” Toby exclaimed.

“Yeah, there’s really no need,” Trissiny agreed. “This’ll blow over as soon as he realizes he just volunteered me and Gabe to freeze our toes off all morning.”

Toby halted mid-interruption, his mouth open, and then leaned back in his chair, groaning and covering his face with both hands.

“We love you too, bro,” Gabriel assured him, leaning over to drape an arm around his shoulders.

“It is seriously fine, Tobes,” Teal chuckled. “If it helps you, we’ve got a new truck model my dad would be delighted to have me show off in the capital. Heated rear compartment and everything. You’d be doing us a favor.”

The dining room door opened, admitting Yancey pushing a cart stacked with small envelopes.

“Ah, good morning, Yancey,” said Ravana, setting aside her teacup. “How is—good heavens.”

“There is no cause for alarm, my Lady,” the Butler assured her, bringing his cart around the table to park near her chair. “These are social invitations, sent by Duchess Dufresne to each of the individuals here.”

“Malivette?” Trissiny asked, blinking. “Us?”

“Oh, that’s right, she never really got to know me, did she?” Gabriel mused, accepting a card with his name in neat calligraphy from Yancey. “Only reason I can imagine why a noble would invite me to a social event.”

“Pursuant to that, my Lady,” Yancey continued while continuing to pass the invitations out around the table, “the Duchess reports that Natchua has acquiesced to her and your suggestion. The social event in question is meant to be the formal announcement of the Houses’ agreement. As protocol dictates, every ruling House and the minor Houses of Lower Stalwar and Tiraan Provinces shall be invited to attend.”

“Natchua?” Gabriel paused in the middle of opening his envelope, looking up with narrowed eyes. “At a social event? With Malivette? Ravana, what did you do?”

“Why does everyone always assume I did something?” she demanded.

The crackle of silverware and paper around the table fell silent as everyone paused in eating and opening cards to stare at her.

“Yes, all right, point taken,” the Duchess acknowledged with a wry little smile.

“One day is extremely short notice for a social event requesting the presence of such dignitaries,” Shaeine observed.

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, “I rather expect Malivette’s intent is to learn who is morbidly curious enough to show up despite the implied insult. One way or another, it promises to be an interesting evening! Was there anything else, Yancey?”

“Yes, my Lady,” he said, handing the last card to Iris and gliding back to her chair, where he folded his hands behind his back and stood at attention. “There appears to be a situation in the west of the province. This morning the Manor received an urgent signal from Sheriff Ingvar. I took the liberty of dispatching Veilwin to the lodge to collect a report.”

“Really? It’s not even eight in the morning,” Ravana said, raising an eyebrow. “I am most impressed that you managed to get her up.”

“I have found that Veilwin’s hangovers respond well to topical hydrotherapy,” Yancey said diffidently.

Gabriel frowned. “What kind of therapy?”

“He dumped water on her,” Ruda said merrily, still tucking into her pancakes. “Works on my Uncle Raffi, too!”

“It seems,” Yancey continued, “Ingvar has discovered a large group of lizardfolk attempting to surreptitiously cross the province, concealing their movements with fae magic.”

Once again, quiet fell over the room as everyone processed that.

“Lizardfolk?” Ravana demanded. “Why? How many?”

“The Shadow Hunters are still attempting to take stock of the situation, but Ingvar has ascertained so far that they are an assemblage of multiple tribes from the entire region of lizardfolk population, extending from Viridill to Mathena and the northern desert. They claim to be going to Tiraas in pursuit of some prophetic vision. The Sheriff has not obtained a thorough headcount, but Veilwin estimates there are at least five hundred of them.”

Ravana blinked twice. “…Trissiny, you grew up near tribal colonies in Viridill, yes? Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“Uh…” Trissiny was still holding her knife and fork, apparently forgotten in both hands. “Based on what I knew, lizardfolk never live in groups of more than a hundred and usually less than half that, rarely approach human cities, have no organized religion, and hibernate in the winter.”

“Well, of course,” the Duchess said fatalistically, forgetting her manners to the point of placing one elbow on the table and leaning her face into her hand. “Because why should the high elves be the only race of people to suddenly abandon millennia of tradition in my backyard? I don’t suppose Ingvar happened to mention to these nomads that I am on vacation?!”

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16 – 21

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The spectacle they’d made in the sanctuary sufficiently distracted everyone that Trissiny and her entourage were able to make a relatively discreet withdrawal, leaving behind an agitated temple filled with exited visitors, distraught Purists, and Legionnaires rapidly moving to ensure the crowd remained under control. The paladin glanced back once just before stepping through a rear door of the sanctuary, and locked eyes just for a moment with Sister Magden, who had knelt to wrap her arms around the weeping Lanora’s shoulders.

Then they were moving through the relatively quieter halls beyond, the whole group sorting into rough columns of two abreast and making for the deeper temple where there would be fewer people.

By mutual contrivance, Rasha and Zafi ended up near the back of the troop, between Sister Azalea’s two priestess friends in the front and the other three Eserites trailing along behind them.

“Well, that…was altogether a hell of a thing,” Zafi finally said softly after they had walked for a minute to only the sound of their combined feet and the muted conversation between Trissiny and Azalea up in the front. “Mission successful and all. I’m glad those turkeys got dealt with. Dang, though. I did not get up this morning expecting to be in a room with Avei.”

Rasha opened her mouth and hesitated, fumbling for a suitable response to that. She had to pause and clear her throat for time, only belatedly murmuring, “That particular experience was a first for all of us, I think. But you get used to it, hanging around with a paladin. Expect the unexpectable, or be trampled by it.”

“I dunno whether to write this off as over my pay grade, or try to see if I can’t finagle a more permanent position around the General,” Zafi admitted. “I dunno, I think I’d make a pretty good lackey. I guess I’ll just have to hang around you a while longer and see if I don’t get the hang of it,” she added, giving Rasha a playful little sidelong smile. “After all, if I can’t pick up some secondhand poise from my lady of mystery, I guess that’d make me completely hopeless.”

There came a gagging sound from behind them, followed by the muffled thump of someone’s fist impacting someone’s midsection. Neither of them turned around.

“I think I can spare you some poise,” Rasha mused. She trailed off, frowning, then drew in a breath. “Look, Zafi, this coy back-and-forth is fun, but would it spoil the illusion if we talk frankly for a little bit? Between you and me, I’m a little wrung out after the day I’ve had.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” Zafi said, exhaling in relief. “Yeah, I honestly don’t know how much longer I could’ve kept it up. Not that I was trying to misrepresent myself, I just… Well, I gotta flirt at maximum strength before you realize how out of my league you are, is all.”

Rasha glanced at her, unable to repress a smile, and found the soldier staring forward with her cheeks flushed. The unexpected boost to her own ego brought back some of her well-trained smoothness, despite the fatigue of the day.

“Straight talk, then. When are you off duty tomorrow?”

Zafi didn’t quite stumble, but her stride hitched as if she’d had to remind herself how to take a step in the middle of one. “Uh, I, ah… Early shift. I’m free at three.”

“Perfect. There’s a Glassian cafe called La Chez just a few blocks from here. I will see you there at four.”

“I, um.” Zafi swallowed heavily. “Rasha, that place is a little out of…”

“My treat,” Rasha assured her. “And I’m not throwing money around; the owner is a friend of my sponsor. She got him his business license when he immigrated here. After that, we’ll see if we want to start traumatizing each other with the sorts of places soldiers and thieves actually like to hang out.” She glanced over at the Legionnaire again, and subconsciously bit her lower lip. “I’ve got a feeling you’re worth the effort.”

Zafi’s answering grin was clearly out of her control. “I…will not disappoint.”

“You haven’t yet.” Rasha winked at her, then subtly shortened her stride, fading backward such that Darius meandered up to take her place as smoothly as if they’d practiced the maneuver. Which, of course, they had.

Zafi was still grinning like a fool, but coughed and made an effort to marshal herself before glancing over at him. “Right. So, this is the part where you explain how much you’ll break my legs if I mistreat your friend?”

“Whoah.” He held up both hands as the two priestesses in front of them shifted their heads to look backward while walking. “As the resident dude-type person, I’m gonna delegate this conversation. Ladies, if you would?”

Another deft Eserite maneuver ensued in which he fell back and Layla and Tallie smoothly sidled up to flank Zafi on both sides, despite the fact they’d turned into a narrower hallway which made this a little cramped.

“First of all,” said Tallie in a pleasant tone, “we never issue a threat in front of witnesses. That’s proof of premeditation, which greatly raises your chance of being convicted if prosecuted and automatically increases your sentence.”

“Second,” Layla continued from her other side, “we don’t issue redundant threats. You are clearly aware of the perils of offending Eserites; making a production of it would just make us look petty and foolish.”

“And most important,” Tallie finished, “Eserites handle their own problems. If you ever hurt Rasha, you will answer to Rasha.”

“We’ll just be sitting on the sidelines, laughing and throwing coins,” Layla added smugly.

Incongruously, Zafi grinned again. “Y’know what? You girls are all right. Actually you remind me a little bit of my sergeant.”

“I do believe I approve of this one,” Layla declared.

At the head of the double column, Sister Azalea broke a lull in the softer conversation between herself and Trissiny to say, quietly, “Thank you for everything you did today.”

“Just my duty,” the paladin replied. “And there are already parts I wish I’d handled better…”

“Obviously, I’m grateful for the help you rendered to the Sisterhood, Trissiny, I don’t mean to minimize that. But I meant personally. It may be routine for you to commune with our goddess, but a simple priestess like myself can expect to spend her life without ever being in her actual presence. It was… Thank you.”

“Ah.” Trissiny smiled faintly at that. “Well, then, you’re welcome.”

The priestess gave her a pensive look. “You are dissatisfied with the outcome?”

“We still need to find the source of the Purists’ funding and equipment, as well as who organized them,” Trissiny said with a dour expression. “Based on your intelligence it seems Sister Lanora is the only one who has that information, and now… I rather doubt she will be inclined to be helpful, and since she is no longer part of the Sisterhood, we no longer have the legal prerogative to detain her. I might be willing to risk it anyway, but something tells me there would be immediate and voluble legal challenges if we tried, accompanied by press coverage of the Sisterhood’s ham-fisted abuses of power. All conveniently untraceable, of course.”

“Hmm.” Azalea narrowed her own eyes in thought. “Undoubtedly the goddess acted as she did for good reason. I must trust this will lead us to the course of action she desires.”

Trissiny indulged in a soft sight. “The consciousness of gods is…not entirely like our own, Sister. As Professor Tellwyrn once put it, Avei the deity can be influenced to do things which Avei the mortal strategist of the Elder War would have known not to. Calling upon her so dramatically, in public, may have been what led to this outcome. Well, anyway, recrimination is useless even when not focused on inscrutable deities; we have the next moves to consider. Sister Azalea…” She hesitated, studying the priestess sidelong for a moment. “Are you still interested in the office of Bishop?”

“I will of course serve Avei in whatever capacity I might,” she said diplomatically. “Surely that is less likely now, rather than more? We have probably just further affronted the Archpope, even if we cannot prove it.”

“I’ve spoken with High Commander Rouvad about this. We plan for the Sisterhood to appoint a Bishop unilaterally, who will be responsible for directing our interfaith relations, without going through the Universal Church.”

“I…see,” Azalea said. “That is a bold move. And now that I think on it, exactly what is needed.”

Trissiny nodded. “My next destination was going to be Viridill, to retrieve Nandi Shahai for that role. But you are here, Sister, and clearly more than capable… The position isn’t mine to appoint, of course, but I think my recommendation carries some weight with Rouvad.”

“I’d be honored to take on the task if the Commander wishes,” Azalea said seriously, “but if Shahai is another prospect, I’d encourage you to ask her first. She has served Avei for five centuries in a surprising variety of roles, and has exactly the web of long-standing connections this task requires. Thank you for thinking of me, however,” she added with a smile. “As these events have demonstrated, I think I am still valuable to the Sisterhood where I am.”

“Very much so,” Trissiny agreed, smiling.

“Then there remains finding and proving a link between the Purists and the Archpope, if possible. I dare to hold out hope that Lanora will still cooperate, but it is true that she now has ample motivation to obstruct us…”

“Well, we’re not entirely out of tricks just yet,” the paladin murmured, eyes straight ahead and narrowed in thought. “Actually… First thing tomorrow, I’m going to call in a favor.”


The door stood slightly ajar, emitting a slice of the clean glow of a fairy lamp, so he pushed it wider and poked his head in.

This wing was in the Manor’s most refurbished section, a hallway lined with bedrooms directly above the kitchen and dining room where the house’s residents spent most of their time. Thus, the room was clean and repaired, with new glass in the windows and modern fairy lighting, but starkly empty, lacking drapes, carpets, or even wallpaper. That had given Natchua plenty of room to lay out her various props.

She had hung maps of Veilgrad and Lower Stalwar Province on one wall and marked them heavily with both ink and pushpins. On the floor were no less than four now-inert spell circles, and another sprawling map of the city held down by a selection of chess pieces, silverware, and coins.

Natchua stood in the center of the room, slowly turning her head back and forth to study the various maps and tapping her lips with one fingertip, a characteristic tic of Professor Tellwyrn’s which she had begun unconsciously using in recent months.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Planning an invasion?”

“Everybody talks about how dangerous and mysterious Veilgrad is,” she said without looking up. “I never really paused to consider what that actually means for people. It’s one thing to note that a steady trickle of people just vanish around here, every year. Sometimes entirely… Sometimes turning up later, in pieces. That’s continued happening as usual while we’ve been living here. While I was gallivanting around the city, getting my face in the papers and doing nothing about any of it. Every one of those statistics was a person, who left grieving people behind.”

He stepped the rest of the way in and pushed the door almost closed behind him, not quite to the point of latching it. “None of that was your responsibility, Natch.”

“Not specifically, no,” she murmured. “Aren’t we all at least somewhat responsible for doing what we can, for who we can, where we are? That seems like one of the basic necessities of being a decent person. Considering who and what I am, I really need to think about stuff like that.”

Stepping carefully to avoid disrupting any of her workings, Jonathan approached her and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders from behind. She immediately leaned back against him. “What brought all this on?”

“Work,” she said sighing softly. “I’m not just up here flagellating myself, Jon. For tomorrow’s planned project I needed a list of targets around the city. And holy shit, there are a lot. Mostly fairies, which I can’t do a whole lot about. I did find a good handful of demonic activity, which is what I was looking for. Oh, also, I’ve accidentally solved Veilgrad’s central mystery.”

“Well, that’ll be a relief to a lot of people,” he observed.

“I think I’d actually better keep it to myself,” Natchua said, closing her eyes and resting her head against his collarbone. “There’s not really anything to be done about it and knowing will just scare everybody. Turns out there’s an abandoned drow city very close to here. Well, abandoned except for the divinely-created undead monstrosities it’s full of now. Themynrite magic was used in their creation, and the resonance between that and the native fairies is what keeps giving rise to necromantic events, despite the fact that none of them are related.”

“Well… Surely if you know where that is, the Empire can go in and clear it out?”

“Bad idea,” she insisted. “If a Themynrite city is abandoned, it’s because it was breached by Scyllithenes. That would be why it’s full of zombie monsters now. You should never open a path for them. And if the Scyllithenes haven’t managed to break through them in thousands of years of trying, those zombie monsters are not to be fucked with. Might be too big a mouthful even for the Imperial Army. Better to leave it alone, and start being more vigilant about undead events in the area.”

“Hence, all this.”

She nodded, opening her eyes to look up at him. “And this is just what I was able to find. It’s a start, anyway. Xyraadi is much better at divination than me; infernomancy doesn’t lend itself to the art.”

“I notice you’ve got your djinn bottle out,” he said in a neutral tone, nodding at the artifact still sitting in the center of one of the inert spell circles.

“Yeah… I don’t call on Qadira lightly, but at least I got what I needed.”

“You found the Wreath?”

“No, they’re not nearly so easy to track. They’re not what I was looking for, anyway. Kheshiri and I will still be chasing them down tomorrow. Given the established pattern, they’ll probably find us once we’re alone. And now I have what I need to be ready for them.” With another quiet sigh, Natchua reached up to grasp his hands and squeeze them momentarily, then pulled herself out of his embrace. “Fortuitously, both succubi are in another room down at the end of this hall. I’ll go brief her real quick.”

“Good idea,” he said with a smile. “And I’m sure it has nothing to do with wanting to break up whatever those two are doing in a room together.”

“Vanislaads are generally not social with each other,” Natchua agreed, leading the way back out into the hall. “Mel and Shiri are pretty focused and they both have plenty to do; I’m not hugely worried about a feud brewing, but still. Doesn’t pay to take risks with their kind.”

“I’m right with you on that.”

She reached one door, grasped the latch and pushed it open. Then both of them froze, staring into the room.

Melaxyna was on all fours on the floor—actually, upon a closer look, she had all four of her limbs bent double and then bound with leather straps, calf to thigh and forearm to bicep, forcing her to balance painfully on her knees and elbows. Her head was mostly obscured, between the gag, the blindfold, and the pair of felt bunny ears leftover from the last spring festival. Both her wings were splayed out to the sides and actually nailed to the floor.

Behind her stood Kheshiri dressed in a formal ballgown with the addition of a broad leather collar from which dangled a cowbell, busy feeding the other succubus’s tail into an old-fashioned laundry mangle they’d somehow dragged up to this room.

Both their heads turned to the door.

“Do you knock?” Kheshiri demanded acerbically.

Natchua and Jonathan jerked back out, yanking the door shut, and simultaneously pressed their backs against the wall to either side of it.

“On the other hand,” Natchua decided, “I could just brief her in the morning.”

He cleared his throat. “Um, I note that it was the significantly more evil succubus in the advantageous position over the more trustworthy one. Should you actually…?”

“In fact, no, it wasn’t; that was Shiri in the…restraints. They’d swapped appearances.”

Jonathan covered his eyes with a hand. “Okay. Somehow, that’s the kinkiest part, and I can’t even articulate why.”

“Well, hell, this is good,” Natchua said, pushing herself off the wall and taking him by the arm. “If you keep two Vanislaads together, they’ll either go at each other like strange cats, or… Go at each other like bunnies. And two Vanislaads getting busy usually means the kind of play that would kill most people. So, it beats the hell out of the alternative. Now let’s go turn in. Suddenly I find I would like to make love slowly in the missionary position with the lights off.”


It was past dark when Trissiny returned to Madouri Manor, though not by much. She found the rest of her class still up and gathered in the front sitting room of their suite, with one exception.

“Trissiny!” Teal exclaimed upon her entry. “There you are, we were starting to worry. Is everything okay?”

“It’s been…a day,” Trissiny said wryly, striding forward and flopping into an unoccupied armchair. Teal and Shaeine were perched together on the loveseat, Gabriel and Toby lounging in smaller chairs, and Fross as usual floating overhead. F’thaan lay curled in front of the fire, though he looked up at her arrival and his tail thumped against the floor. “Are you two okay? You got everything squared away all right?”

“Once F’thaan was rescued, our afternoon was much more tedious than harrowing,” Shaeine assured her. “The authorities were not pleased by Vadrieny making a display of herself in broad daylight in the middle of the city, but we had ample legal representation.”

“Also, it helps that we were in the right,” Teal added. “Vadrieny’s actions were fully covered by the statutes governing defense of self and property. Except for some, ah, incidental damage to the pavement. The magistrate was persuaded to levy a fine and the bill for repairs, rather than anything more serious.”

“As it ever was,” Ruda drawled, gesticulating with her bottle of rum. “What’d get a factory worker jailed gets a factory heiress fined, in an amount that won’t even dent her allowance.”

“It does seem like people with money live under an effectively different set of laws,” Fross chimed.

“C’mon, doll, you know I love you,” Ruda added in response to Teal’s scowl. “But you exist in a context. There’s nothing gained by denying your advantages in life.”

“I’d like to see a factory worker make a Vadrieny-style crater in the street,” Gabriel remarked.

“I apologize that we were not able to drive you back here as planned,” Shaeine said to Trissiny.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Trissiny said quickly, “it ended up being Avenist business that kept me occupied most of the day. I wouldn’t have been able to take you up on it anyhow. I’m just glad to see you and F’thaan are back safe. Did June turn in already?”

“Actually, she’s spending the night up at Ravana’s hunting lodge,” said Toby. “With her sister, and the rest of Brother Ingvar’s group.”

“Yeah, you missed the big news of the day,” Gabriel added. “Ravana has effectively hired the whole sect to serve as the new foresters and game wardens for the province.”

“Really,” Trissiny said, leaning forward. “That’s…a peculiar move. Wouldn’t that get her in trouble with the Huntsmen?”

“Oh, but that wasn’t the big news,” he replied with relish. “There was a whole public announcement today while you were off in the capital. House Madouri has formally recognized Ingvar’s splinter group as the official and legitimate faith of Shaath.”

“Which means,” Toby added, “that legally they are, in Tiraan Province.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “She can’t just… Wait, why would she do that? It makes her an outright enemy of the orthodox Huntsmen! Not to mention probably the Universal Church. There’s a reason the Houses stay out of religious politics. The risk/reward calculation is never in the favor of people trying to meddle.”

“Well, like I was just saying before you came in,” Gabriel replied, “there’s a good chance of this getting her in good with the other cults. Pretty much nobody actually likes the Huntsmen.”

“And like I was just telling him, it doesn’t work that way,” Ruda retorted. “People who’ve got power and privilege want to protect those things above any other concern. The accepted thing is that nobles don’t meddle in cult business. If this becomes a precedent, the cults will be losing influence to the Houses. All the religious leaders are going to come down on her, or try to.”

“Ravana isn’t reckless enough to do something like that without considering the angles,” Trissiny mused. “What is she up to?”

“Uh, pardon me, but isn’t she kind of explicitly exactly that?” Fross objected. “I’m not denying that Ravana’s sly, but just from the stories I’ve heard it seems like her whole problem is a tendency to go on the attack without accounting for the broader context.”

“Oh, I think she’s considered the angles, all right,” Ruda drawled. “Question is how carefully she’s considered ‘em.”

“Well, that’s as good a segue as any,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Gabe, Toby, I think we need to take a page out of Ravana’s book.”

“Well, sure,” Gabriel said lightly. “But where are we going to get a mag cannon and a team of assassins at this hour?”

“I see that verbal diarrhea still hasn’t cleared up,” Toby said. “You need to eat more fiber, Gabe. Triss, which book did you mean, specifically?”

“The part where she’s making this a working vacation. I have spent my day preemptively shutting down an attempt by Justinian to induce a schism within the Sisterhood of Avei, and encountering growing evidence that he’s trying to do the same thing within the Thieves’ Guild. That,” she added, turning to Shaeine and Teal, “is probably why they sent a couple of hapless goons to try to abduct F’thaan.”

“I wondered,” Teal murmured. “They never had a realistic chance of getting him. It does seem like the Guild was deliberately setting itself up for failure.”

“In response,” Trissiny continued, “the Sisterhood is dropping its attempts to get Justinian to confirm a new Bishop. Tomorrow, if the arrangements can be made fast enough, Commander Rouvad is going to appoint one without his approval, and have her take over our interfaith operations, as Bishop Darling is currently doing for the Guild.”

“Risky,” Ruda said, her expression intent. “You’ll either end up freezing the Universal Church out of the only thing it actually does, or being frozen out by the Church. It all depends on how many other cults you can get to sign on with you.”

“Exactly,” Trissiny agreed, nodding and turning back to the boys. “The Guild hasn’t been having much luck, but they’re nearly as unpopular as the Huntsmen. Joined by the Sisterhood, things will change. And if all three Trinity cults take a stand…”

“You realize we don’t actually have the authority to do that,” Toby said seriously. “I’m not refusing you, Trissiny. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree and I’ll back you on this. I saw what a danger Justinian is as close up as you did. I just want to warn you, whatever relationship you have with Commander Rouvad, it’s likely more productive than any attempt I could make to get the Dawn Council to… To do anything.”

“Same goes, sort of,” Gabriel agreed. “I like the idea, Triss. But Lady Gwenfaer is the scariest person I’ve ever met, largely because I suspect she’s the smartest and I don’t actually have any idea what she thinks or wants. I walk in there asking her to go to war with the Archpope, and the only certainty is she’ll find some way to profit from it.”

“I think I see an inherent risk in this,” Fross added. “So, Justinian’s closest backers are the Huntsmen, right? And thanks to Ingvar, they’re split and effectively neutralized, right? So now, a few months after that happened, the two cults that have most openly defied him are having internal divisions he’s fostered.”

“Yeah, that’s about the time frame it’d take to set up something like that,” Ruda agreed.

“I see where you’re going, Fross, and the same had occurred to me,” said Trissiny.

Gabriel chuckled. “Well, hell, I almost hope he does try to instigate a schism inside the Vidians. Let Justinian get a taste for dealing with real schemers.”

“Once again, Arquin, not how it fucking works,” Ruda said with clear exasperation. “A group that’s already prone to politicking and infighting is more vulnerable, not less. There may be elements in it that are too good for Justinian to fuck with, but there are also a million other cracks he can wedge his fingers into. Only takes one little grip for him to start pulling the whole thing apart.”

Gabriel sighed, his smile fading. “I see your point. Man… Bishop Darling suggested I pick a faction and commit to them, but… Val’s been trying to coach me on the intricacies of Vidian politics, but it’s like the web a spider would make after you dunked it in coffee. I still don’t even know where to start finding a group of allies who can stand up to him and hold the rest of the cult together if he attacks it.”

“Actually,” Toby said pensively, studying him, “I think you know exactly where to start, Gabe. You just won’t like it.”

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